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Women On Women

India Gate

Landless rural poor women in Gujarat spend four or five hours every day searching for whatever fuel or fodder is to be found. In Karnataka villages, women expend 70% of the energy required for all the work in the village but eat two thirds the calories consumed by their husbands. The number of females per 1,000 males in the population has dropped from 972 in 1901 to 935 in 1981. "In large parts of the country the infant mortality rate among baby girls in the one to five-year-old age group is estimated to be about 50% higher than that among baby boys." "One-fourth of the 12 million girls born in India every year die before they are 15 years old and one-sixth of these deaths are due to sex discrimination." "Studies show that out of every 1000 foetuses that are destroyed 995 are female." While 62.07% of India’s 10-14 year-old boys are in school, 37.47% of their female counterparts are enrolled. "It has been estimated that in India, among agricultural labourers, women are generally paid 40 to 60% of the male wage, while they perform much more labour-intensive tasks than do men." "The 1901 census records 525 women per 1,000 men in the country's workforce. By 1971, this figure has declined to 210 women per 1,000 men." "Between 1951 and 1971 women’s share of total employment in factories declined by more than 20%." "Less than 6% of women workers are found in the organised sector."

"There was an agricultural labourer in Punjab who said that she had been bleeding profusely since she had been sterilized a year ago, but that she could not stop working for a day. There was also a poor peasant woman in a Bihar village whose uterus had been hanging between her legs for the last six years, ever since she developed complications during the birth of her last child." "We get very little grain and we get it very late [since this class must wait for the day’s wages before buying food]. It was her habit to feed me first, then the children, and not eat enough herself," explains a man whose wife died of starvation. "In a rich contractor’s camp near a road building site in Palamau district, the Sunday magazine reporters saw eight young tribal girls taking care of him–one pressed his limbs while another held his head and so on." An old woman told those protesting against her neighbor’s death in a dowry dispute, "God knows where she got such fortitude. She burnt to death without uttering a cry." Says one worker in a feminist organization, "What outraged her father particularly was that she had learned to reach our office in Lajpat Nagar by herself." "The father proudly told us that he had brought up his daughter with such fond care that he did not even let her do a regular BA. She was made to do her BA by correspondence course, even though they lived next door to the university. He did not want her ever to step out of the house alone."

A woman about her early married days: "I had to get up at four in the morning and do all the housework without taking any rest. It was always after midnight by the time I lay down as my husband never returned before that time. I felt ill as I was not at all accustomed to such treatment, but no medication was given to me. I was not allowed to write to my parents and their letters were never delivered to me. I grew emaciated."

On a mother-in-law: "She would even tie up my hands and feet and hang me from the wall-hook. And the beatings I’ve had! Not an ordinary whack or two–she used to beat me up with the rolling pin. Once she even broke my leg by throwing a heavy brass pot at me. And did I bleed! The blood would have filled that pot!"

"I told him sharply not to, but he’d say, ‘Shu! My parents will hear!’ and go right on. You see it was first a tiny room with one cot in it. We slept on the cot and right next to it, on the floor slept my father and mother-in-law. There was a sort of thin curtain between, made up of an old sari, but what use was that? You could see everything through it and of course everyone could certainly hear everything. And that cot! It was a steel sheet on four wooden blocks and made a racket at the slightest move!"

A Dalit woman about husbands: "Look at that Kalpana. Her husband beats her up on any pretext: you must do this and must not do that and whatever. She must do all the work and then he is going to find fault with everything. And beat her. Every day. I have yet to see a good husband among us."

"And everyone is forever after the girls: do this and don’t do that, cover yourself properly, don’t talk to anyone, look down when you walk, must learn to cook. If a girl doesn’t learn to cook she’s beaten up and told that she’ll blacken their name before their in-laws. She is forever nagged and scolded and yelled at."

"I was married at ten .... My mother got sixty rupees from my husband. I had enough clothes but she never gave me enough to eat. Nasty bit of goods, my mother-in-law!"

"What do girls need to see the movies for?"

"All girls have to get after the stove anyway, what use is education to them?"

"In that school the teacher never taught us anything. Just told me to do all sorts of work, like bring the cow-dung, sweep and plaster the floor with dung, bring water, pull up the weeds ... I got fed up. As though we were old enough to do such work."

"One day, my brother came home from work and just beat the daylights out of his wife. He picked her up and bodily threw her out because she hadn’t made his tea nor his dinner and he was fed up of cooking for himself."

"I tell you, men never know how to behave. They don’t understand that you got to get to know a person a bit before you can go to bed with them. They won’t even glance at you throughout the day, nor say one word, and then jump on you at night."

"After that he took me to another doctor who wanted to give me a long course of injections and medicines but when my husband saw how much it was all going to cost, he began to feel that if he spent all that money on me there would be nothing left for his drinking! I felt like running away. But where was I to go?"

"So I said to my husband that he could get married again if he wanted and his cronies at work found another woman for him. He used to beat me up every day to please her!"

"If I fall ill, he says, ‘I work so hard outside and I’m never ill. How come you fall ill just sitting at home!’ At times I can hardly get up in the morning. My stomach hurts and back hurts and arms and legs. He has beaten me so much and twisted my arms so badly that I needed an operation to straighten them out. All the bones got elongated and gone soft. They had to take nine stitches in the arm. He wasn’t willing to take the responsibility of the operation . . . ."

"My husband earns six to seven hundred rupees a week but doesn’t give me more than fifty or sixty ... [H]e spends what he earns on liquor, spends on useless things like movies, rickshaws–won’t give me money to run the house. I say, if you earn so much, why should I break my back to earn a little bit [to pay for the meals he expects her to prepare]?"

"We sold pots and pans and plates and made do on tea and, at times, water. Finally, there was nothing. We had some red chili powder and salt so we ate that for four days. We were all at our last ounce of strength; my little brother was dying for want of milk."

"Why should the girls get married so soon and start producing the children and working to feed them? But no one else feels this, I tell you. They are all brought up to do as the parents say. They marry the man the parents find them. They never say a word because otherwise they will be beaten up and thrown out and no one will respect them."

These are not from a Readers Digest Condensed Books version of feminist fiction, but my underlinings from Dalit (untouchable) autobiographies, a newspaper article or two, (feminist) social scientists working among the laboring classes, conversations and anecdotes shared along the way. Poor women live these realities without the buffer of physical comforts or the solace of leisure, and perhaps we are tempted by such a litany to flee into anger or abrupt withdrawal from what V.S. Naipaul once notoriously labeled "an area of darkness." Both these responses stop thinking too soon, however. Though change has begun to reshape daily lives even outside old enclaves of egalitarianism, the forces destroying these bodies and psyches are also at work in many of the more comfortable households of India. Violence, both raw and sublimated, lines the walls of a well of silence middle class writers can name, even embody, but rarely wake from entirely, for these are the nightmares that haunt the piles of saris and imported Elles that comfort the privileged sector of Indian society. What is all but grotesque in the life of the Dalit may be more subtle but still normative for the Brahman. For to these snapshots I can add a set of a proper Brahman "girl" with her duly arranged Brahman "boy" of a husband, kicked into miscarriage, half-blinded by a blow to one eye, presented with four male friends to cook for on the eve of her own exam and later burned with the hot oil and beaten into eight slipped discs for being too friendly, dragged by her braid across the university campus to the guffaws of the security guard and the cheers of guys in the dorm. And that’s the part of her story that happened while they studied in America, evidence that neither caste nor wealth nor place is the final determinant of the violent gendering of Indian women. For the socially and economically secure class that creates women’s fiction in India, the disciplinary lives of gender threaten physical survival less severely and less frequently, but they nonetheless describe a placement in which relative economic privilege is closely and fiercely scrutinized by many pairs of eyes.

As Meenakshi Mukherjee notes, "Social realism at its best conveys in concrete and specific terms the complex relationships between individuals and their society. This relationship can be studied in sharper focus when the individual’s life is hedged in by an enclosed space which permits very few options, and when the odds are against her, in other words when she is a woman" (99). All this writing marks a change, and to question writers with any impertinence is to discover the contemporary equivalent of one of Vladimir Propp’s functives–that character in a fairy tale who appears at the crucial moment to help the hero become herself. For women in their fifties, there seems inevitably to be an aunt whose life disappeared into the quicksand of conventionally prescribed roles, without a trace except for the impression she made upon a young niece, or a bit of soul-arresting frankness stolen from the cultural censors on an aging woman’s way down.

Case: "I had an aunt who was a child bride, so lively and full of fun. Before she even reached puberty, her husband died. Immediately they dressed her in a white sari, took away her jewels. She had none of the things most people have, not even flowers. Through all of this, despite all of this, she was so cheerful and smiling, so full of life. I can remember thinking to myself, early on, how can this be? How can she seem so happy, have so little? And I understood that it was because everyone was telling her this was how it should be, and approving of her for being that way. And I began to realize that it was the system that was at fault, that made people this way. And so I began to write."

Case: "I will tell you a story, about my aunt actually. She was so beautiful, the other women were so envious of her face and her figure, especially since she danced and sang so beautifully. At celebrations the women in my state dance together–it is one good outlet for their artistic spirit. Everyone always wanted my aunt at their celebrations because she was so very good. And terrible! If there was a man around, she would sing the louder, even letting her pullah slip a bit to show a breast ... when she would get home her husband, who was very jealous, would thrash her. But then at the next celebration she would give him the slip, knowing she would be thrashed, but doing it anyway. And the women would say, o, she deserved it, she is so outrageous, and then want her again at the next occasion. But when I was fifteen, I heard that my uncle was sick, and somehow, I don’t quite know how, I went to see them alone. And she came out to me and said, ‘Do you know how I have the courage to dance that way? It is because of this,’ she said, touching her vermilion bindi [a sign of marriage]. ‘If this goes, I go,’ for of course she could not wear the bindi as a widow. He did, and she did. She was dressed in a white sari and the women of the house made sure she was shunted off in a corner. She never danced or sang again. And I thought to myself, just once in her life she let down her veil, and it was to me."

What such a litany teaches us is twofold: we come to know something of the severity with which gendering can assert itself in women’s daily lives, and we learn to value the emergence of an independent voice seeking the "talking cure" of Writing. Freud’s kind of "cure" is not the American fantasy of blissful ease, and so easy an ideal rarely even flits across the page of Indian fiction. To speak of the many kinds of constraint that constitute an Indian woman’s encounter with her gendered identity is a "talking cure" that cannot be expected to resolve neatly so complex a weave of contradictions. When I talked with Lakshmi Kannan in New Delhi, I asked her that summary question writers both love and dread, "how do you describe what you’re doing in your work?" After a silence, she said, "Well ... How do you say what you’re doing besides making a book? But I would say that I am very much preoccupied with women in their sociological context. If you define a ‘state’ as an abstract cultural force, then I am interested in women who are ‘modernized,’ not just by education but in many other ways as well (who are with talent, real achievers), and the tension between the regressiveness of a state and the progressive elements in these women."

I think she says well what the "talking cure" encounters when Indian writers attempt to salve verbally the pains that prompt their writing, that resonate when they come to understand that they are the ones picked out by an aunt to repay her debt of silence. In the paper she read at an international women’s conference, Kannan argues that "Instead of relegating a private experience to the whispered confines of a female space, women should vocalize and articulate the areas of trouble," an articulation that unsettles the customary "boundaries of the private and the public" (1990, 28). Though well versed in feminist theory and in the work of social theorists such as Michel Foucault, she parries my question about books that have helped her think out the "sociological context" of women: "My own life has absorbed these shocks. And I can look around me at the lives of other women. I think by tracing back through several generations of the lives of women. It’s interesting, but very painful, to write about a society hardened by regressiveness not to accept their talents. Conventional women are accepted easily enough, but the others . . . ."

Kannan and the writers of her generation try to fill in the well of silence marked by those ellipses. Much writing undertakes to "vocalize and articulate the areas of trouble," often and at times strikingly consonant with the narrative Sudhir Kakar offers in his chapter on "Feminine Identity in India." Kakar’s starting point is that "where and when tradition governs, an Indian woman does not stand alone: her identity is wholly defined by her relationships to others" (56). Kakar’s chapter describes how thoroughly those relationships are determined by the exclusive value of the male, with a woman’s father, husband, and son marking the phases of her life, the orbits of her responsibility, and the standards for her self-validation. Obedience to the father, submission to the husband, indulgence of the son, are expected to be the most decisive measures of a woman’s value, with marriage rescuing her from the ignominy of spinsterhood, the birth of a son redeeming her from the curse of useless barrenness, and an early death excusing her from the permanent effacement that is a widow’s fate.

Conformity to such constraints is not won without a price. With a clinician’s reticence Kakar observes that "hostility towards men and potential aggression against male infants are often turned inward, subsumed in a diffuse hostility against oneself, in a conversion of outrage into self-deprecation" (59). But never entirely: key relationships become ambivalent under these unresolved pressures. As the focal point of social identity, the husband may be feared, even hated, but he is also defended and cared for. As the signifier of her most important function, the son is fully indulged, but he may also become the victim of emotional, even sexual, energies for which the woman has no outlet. At its worst, this intensity menaces the very identity of the male and becomes what Kakar details as the "Bad Mother" syndrome; more often, one finds a man’s less threatening childhood closeness to his mother a lost ideal of intimacy never again achieved in life. Finally, Kakar notes that "a mother’s unconscious identification with her daughter is normally stronger than with her son" (60-61), for her daughter is her younger self and is often treated with the love and tenderness she has missed since her own childhood. But a daughter is also the source of great anxiety as, during her teens, she is taught to be a proper wife, her dowry and trousseau gathered, and an appropriate match arranged. As for daughters-in-law, the relationship is constantly noted in women’s writing as a notorious point of betrayal to women’s solidarity. A daughter-in-law is the one relation of pure power traditionally known by women, and a depressing number of these relations become channels of "retaliation" for the abuse and exploitation senior women have felt in their own lives. No experience remains unmixed; every concrete relation carries intense reminders of the pressurized space of gender.

The institution of marriage is structured by these lived contradictions: it is the dominant source of status, security, validation, and pleasure, but its "rules" inhibit individual experimentation and provide powerful machinery for disciplining nonconformity. Three traditional marriage practices are especially culpable in this context, namely early marriage (which "protects" a girl’s virginity and excludes mésalliance while foreclosing any independence to the process of self-discovery), patrilocal marriage (which takes a woman away from her natal village and keeps her absolutely dependent on the new extended family for approval and even sustenance), and patrilineal inheritance (which keeps men in possession of the means of producing wealth–and hence of making life’s choices–despite legislation mandating equality in inheritance). With no easy way out, the way in is marked by ambivalence towards self and those in relation to whom one is all but helplessly defined. Over and over again one reads both fictional and nonfictional accounts of women’s lives shaped by these constraints, and the wonder is that so much creative evasion of their limits continues to appear. The mental paralysis of which violence and suicide are symptoms is easily enough understood–more so than the capacity of these writers to work their way to varying distance from the kind of identity that is pre-manufactured by the culture.

The patterns Kakar describes after innumerable case histories have walked through his office appear sometimes with surprising congruence in novels like Mannu Bhandari’s Bunty (National Publishing House, 1983), originally the Hindi novel Aapka Bunty (and one often taught in the schools). As a divorced woman, Shakun is statistically a rarity among Indian women, but her relations to the men who define her are close to Kakar’s characterization of the norm. Near the end of the novel, as she reflects upon the turbulence in the wake of her son Bunty’s departure to live with his father (her new husband and his two children fill out the six upset by divorce and remarriage), she realizes both her son and Ajay (her former husband) had "expected something from her which she had failed to provide" (181). Ajay "believed in living his life in his own way," and "had cut Shakun out from his life" when she disappointed him. But his privilege to expect "his own way" is not hers, and Bunty’s utter intransigence in refusing to accept a new father, new house, new siblings, marks a narcissistic refusal similar to his father’s: neither needs to respect reciprocity. Both command the absolute depropriation of the mother/wife.

Shakun’s absorption with Bunty after the divorce seems like an obvious form of the overcompensation Kakar describes in "bad" mother-son relations: they sleep together, she indulges him without restraint (and with the approval of the servant who functions as one of the voices of tradition–Phuphi turns on Shakun when she is selfish enough to begin dating the Doctor who becomes her second husband). The point of view frequently shifts into Bunty’s mind to pick up the confusion he feels over his mother’s intensity. Phuphi tries to temper Shakun’s emotional intensity by making explicit her sense of its bad effects ("Bunty, you’re really a girl"–13), but Bunty knows only confusion when his mother seeks repeated confirmations of his undying love:

Kakar writes how in the "bad mother’s" son, the "surge of unbidden and uncontrollable affect seems to threaten to engulf him while at the same time it arouses acute anxiety" (91), a fair description of the confusion Bunty feels here. Kakar goes on to blueprint the emotional life Bunty’s thoughts reveal: "As the infant boy grows–cognitively, psycho-sexually and socially–as he develops the capacity to ‘put it all together,’ he senses that he cannot do without his mother nor remove himself from her presence, but at the same time he is incapable of giving her what she unconsciously desires" (91). Though Shakun is far from seeking sexual relief with Bunty–she is strong enough to find it with her second husband instead–her emotional dependency upon Bunty has much the same effect upon the boy.

Hence we read that "although Mummy was effusive in her love for him yet somewhere in his heart he had a lingering fear of her. He had thought of asking her many questions but as always the chain snapped midway" (20). We might change "although" to "because" as we come to understand his fear of falling from the patriarchal succession of privilege into a bondage to her displaced but still vital libidinal economy, one that could never really be his own. The line of questioning by which he could pose the normal distances is a "chain" he is still too weak a male to forge upon her. "Lawyer Uncle" warns her of what we would call castration ("your surfeit of love will reduce him to a dwarf!"), but his is only one of many echoes of Kakar’s analysis in the novel. The story of Sonal Rani, the witch who devours the Raja’s hundred children, haunts Bunty as the nightmare extreme of the Bad Mother. And even the Doctor tells her with typical bluntness, "Your domineering ways have kept him from growing into his full potential. You’ve never given him a chance to be naughty. Of course, you’ve taught him to be willful and temperamental like girls" (107). Clearly, Bunty is meant for an active male slot in the gender machine, not this passive female role of servicing the emotional needs of others.

And so she is caught and exposed, her son finally "punishing" her by leaving to live with his father, her new husband resigned to a shell over the issue, and her own selfhood paralyzed. Halfway through the novel, as she thinks of marrying the doctor, she tells herself that "a man’s company lends meaning to life and makes it full" (109), but the character of that meaning and fullness seems less than benign a page later when she thinks,

She escapes the "mental agony" of someone trying to arrogate male privilege to herself only by realizing that "a woman may reach any height of glory but even then she requires a man’s support" (110-1); the Doctor’s "certain serenity" marks the intersection of class and gender, and she remains the eternal supplicant at such a nexus of power. Words like "subservient," "asset," and "dominate" keep gender, economics, and power closely linked as she encounters at point blank range the "strange mental quandary" of wanting an "ego" like her profession’s role models but lacking the genital admission standards.

Perhaps the role of this novel in the school curriculum is partly one of admonishing women to constrain their aspirations. But for our purposes, let us take it as a model of how a woman’s flow of basic energy balks at the cultural obstacles placed in its way. Instead of the "certain serenity" of a Professional Man’s unified and singular identity, her energy takes multiple shapes, forms, and pathways, partially concentrated in the conjugal moment, partially in that maternal embrace, again partially in her own less securely defined and sanctioned professional role. The doctor is fully invested in a single ensemble, a sort of patriarchal mutual fund unifying individuality, family, profession and society. Shakun, on the other hand, is an investor without sufficient capital to qualify: to play at all in this ontological economy, she must diversify her assets, stay liquid and mobile by shifting energy in segments rather in totalities, venturing her emotional life’s savings in whatever limited offering comes her way. These largely unconscious tactics become pathological not from individual defect, not by any failure of ethical discrimination, but as a symptom of the culture’s extraordinary restriction of her productive energies to the domestic icon of the dutiful Sita. Her confusion over her feelings, her reveries of distraction, her "dark clouds" of unarticulated anxieties and anger, occur at the points where daily life blocks her energy, channeling it back into the domain of Sita. That redirection is what makes every relation ambivalent: each carries the positive valence of energetic engagement and the negative valence of surveillance–she is either a defector from her sanctioned Sita-role or defective as Sita because of her ambivalence.

She is a version of the woman loyal to the husband who beats her, sharing the character of her consciousness with the more "sensational" case histories with which we began, though not the over brutality of their experience. Several layers operate here, the most obvious being the social level at which a constrictive system produces individual pain, even pathology. The next layer down is her more primary investment in her society’s forms–its definition and organization of work, family, and ego. Shakun struggles most interestingly at the conjunction between her pulses of organic energy and the shapes they’re permitted to inhabit. What if she were to refuse the fragile totalized ego expected of her, with all its hunger for approval, validation, and security? Or family and sexuality as a gendered division of labor, status, and roles? Or work itself as vocation or profession, as the shape of "productive" energy? Would she look psychotic, or free? Shakun might reach this perspective through classical Indian ideas about the illusory character of ego and other cultural forms, or she might undergo it through pathological withdrawal into psychological fragmentation, catatonia, or a paranoid’s identification with the character and values of the victorious patriarchal type… Instead, however, she spins within the contradictory world of daily experience where she is tortured by the simultaneity of social approval and psychological starvation. Her economy does not match up well at all with the political economy that was both my metaphor and her regime.

The novel’s endings are, perhaps, instructive. Shakun’s last chapter ends with her sense that "Everything became a problem to her. For that matter, these days she had become a problem to herself" (189), no doubt because she cannot resolve the contradiction between the "ego" she would have, the "simple straightforward life" she wanted, and the self-sacrifice and convolutions prescribed for her gender. Hence she collapses in tears at the end with the illusion of Bunty’s tiny arms around her: the doctor comes, a well-intentioned cavalry forever beside the point, but what there is. "Two powerful arms encircle her. Two tiny arms get crushed under the powerful ones" (193). Shakun’s ending leaves her "broken into more and more bits," held together but not healed by the male she chooses, husband over son. Social forms are a vise; she knows she is multiple in her sense of the openings potentially congenial to her temperament and abilities; she knows that she exceeds any limit, any form, that she is more fluid and multidimensional than any role or function allotted her. But within the cultural logic she has internalized, she can understand her multiplicity only as fragments, her fluidity as her failure to achieve the wholeness he exhibits.

Bunty’s ending is the opposite. Sleeping in the rail car on his way to Calcutta with Ajay, he dreams of marches and Mummy and teachers and sadhus, bursting into tears like his mother does. But the difference is that he finds himself not in bits, but as an "I" one-to-one with the patriarchal form of ego identity it is his birthright to assume: "As he looked through his tear-filled eyes everything in the compartment became a mingled mass. Papa’s face also merged into those faces till all the faces became one" (215). Bhandari has given us a paradigm of patriarchal faces coalescing into the one empowered form of ego for which these individuals are signs. When Bunty recognizes their congruence, when he understands how one sign can substitute for another in the semiotics of gender, then he has, finally, distanced himself from his mother and the femininity of which servants, Lawyer Uncles, and stepfathers accused him.

Kakar writes extensively of the passage sons make from the feminine world of their mothers’ company to the masculine world of fathers, uncles, school, profession, and male friendships, a traumatic one which shifts often suddenly from effusive love to restraint and manliness. From a different perspective, "restraint" is self-limitation and "manliness" is a false unity and an arrested, pathological stasis. Cloying, "feminine" emotions might, from that same different perspective, become more like generous engagement and feminine weakness more like sensitivity to the multifarious complexities of human experience.

The protagonist of Bunty has the advantages of education, class, and economic security as she labors to choose her way out of the impasse in which her divorce has left her. Though these resources are not sufficient for her to achieve happiness–the loss of Bunty drains the exuberance with which she enters her marriage–they are enough to bring her to the most promising point of pleasure and security offered her by her society. Take away any one of these advantages, and the odds shift immediately to an all but overwhelming degree. In the Pan on Fire narratives, for example, we read about women whose lives are all but canceled out by the lack of choice and privilege. If the Dalit woman marries luckily, her life can be pleasant if minimal in material terms, a long round of hard labor but a vibrant connection to primary pleasures and relations; much the same seems to be the case for the proverbial village woman. But to the farming families’ eternal vulnerability to climate one must add the economic upheavals of a developing nation in which low income families pay the greatest cost for what westerners call "progress." A few of the Dalit narrators have cast their life stories as one of epiphany and progress, and Manushi’s narratives of women working in marginal occupations confirm that many women at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchies have by force of will created a living for themselves, using the social forms Shakun is shattered by to survive against the economic odds and to validate the kind of ego structure required by the social order.

But a persistent function in fiction graphs the vanishing point of hope. Gujarati writer Dhiruben Patel, for example, tells in "Crushed Flowers" the story of Kaushambi, an adolescent girl who can remember a childhood in which she "loved to dive deep into [her father’s] happy laughter, flowing like a rippling stream, to be lifted up in his strong arms and try hard to answer his strange questions" (in The Slate of Life [New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1990], 123). But now that she is past puberty, her family only disapproves of her determination to smile while she can, fearful that her joy will dry up as fully as her father’s has: "that is why she wants to laugh while she can ... She just looks at the eyes, full of warmth, full of life. She cannot help responding to the sunrise in their eyes" (123). But father, brother, and mother see no acquaintance, no favor, as innocent: all signify a sexuality that must be contained, and they force her to submit to a decorum only a half step shy of the seclusion of purdah. "The wings on her feet had been clipped" (127), for she will be no Mercury carrying messages of "sunrise" and flowers and light into the grey domesticity awaiting her.

But if Kaushambi is too young and therefore dependent to make her own way, Tamil writer Vaasanthi’s Nagu-granny in "The Journey" is too old, the family wealth trickling down through a succession of males, bypassing her, leaving her the object of ridicule and abuse for surviving so many of her descendants. When she so stuffs her mouth with rice that she dies, the only benediction must be spoken with irony: "‘Ah,’ said Saroja, gently stretching the body on the floor, ‘the old one had gone out of her mind. There’s no doubt about it’" (61). In such a state where the old have neither power nor function, death is a sanity to be repressed as long as possible, as neither surviving nor dying is much of an answer.

In Rajinder Singh Bedi’s (originally Urdu) novel, I Take This Woman, we encounter a poor woman who is essentially sold to one man, much older, brutal, and then forced after her husband’s murder to marry his much younger brother, a youth she has raised as a son. The villagers force the marriage (it’s the only way they can contain the danger of a widow’s sexuality, a young profligate’s wayward desires, and the property involved), to the point of beating the groom and dragging him to his own wedding. The violence of husband and neighbors is a blunt image of the force behind social norms, and for her to find herself finally desiring the man whom she originally felt was an incestuous match, and then ultimately to achieve sexual pleasure with him, testifies to a survivor’s capacity to exist within malign constraints. But Bedi does not allow such a sentimental romance to dominate. The final turn of the knife comes when Rano is coerced to give her consent to the marriage of her daughter with the young man who murdered her first husband. She first cries, "May my death come to me!" But she is caught by her aged father-in-law’s desire to replace his dead sons with "a real one" (101), her own desire to find approval at last from "her long-lost father" (102), and her need not to fall forever outside what little share of order she has found. The novel ends with her having a beatific vision of the mother goddess.

Bedi’s novel, which won the 1966 Sahitya Akademi award, renders on its surface a moving portrait of the powerlessness and suffering of this woman who must prove a survivor without the aid of a brother or father. But once past her sensual awakening in middle age with her second husband, the narrative takes a sinister turn when she feels that "the future of the world rested on Rano’s verdict" (102). Her old father-in-law has a vision of the eternal daughter-in-law promising ten grandsons for the son she takes in marriage. And as she thinks through the implications of blocking the proposed marriage, these are the terms that come to her:

Rano finds the prospect of disobedience apocalyptic, so thoroughly conditioned is she to the patriarchal order from which she has benefited so very little in her life. When she ends the novel as "tears of gratitude streamed down her cheeks and a beatific smile lit up her face," we see the extent to which the goddess Durga can be transformed (toward a Sita?) to endorse values it is difficult to imagine a female writer assigning her.

Rano lacks either the education or the position of privilege from which to distance herself from her culture’s rendering of either Durga or her own selfhood. What Rano cannot see is that the apocalypse she fears provoking has already occurred for her and her kind. If sexual fulfillment can only come from a forced marriage to a "simple-minded" surrogate son, if social place can be kept only by conforming to the hallucination of an old man buying a surrogate son with his granddaughter’s flesh, and if of all goddesses Durga can be the guarantor of so seamy a succession of marriages, then Rano has normalized a waste land as her utopia and we must feel that the ideological achievements of patriarchal culture are indeed awesome. She has internalized as her very selfhood a regime that breaks and deforms her repeatedly as she passes from one contradictory node to another in its network of economic forces, hierarchies, and social forms.

The unwanted marriage over which the bride has no choice recurs constantly. It defines the life lived by the narrators in Pan on Fire. It is what drives Tamil writer Chudamani Raghavan’s character in "Counting the Flowers" to tally the blooms on the nagalinga tree while her poor parents sell her at a bargain to a lame boy (in The Slate of Life). "She must count the flowers. Must count the flowers. That was all. Count the flowers. She must observe the flowers with care and count them correctly ..." (96). But finally "the flowers seemed to vanish and she saw on the tree four dozen lame legs," each one a token for the wounds she has felt listening to her future mother-in-law’s anger over her dwindling expectations of dowry, her father’s greedy capitalizing on the groom’s deformity, the groom’s all too apparent lust for her perfect body of hopes and desires.

It is as poignant a tale as that of Mukta in Punjabi novelist Amrita Pritam’s The Empty Space, published together with A Statement of Agony (New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1979). Mukta is married to a widower mourning still his first wife and doting over his son, and she feels herself wedded less to the man than to the empty space left by the first wife and then by the son who dies suddenly. The story ends with husband and wife understanding the complexities of her ambivalence, neither wanting the son nor wanting his death, but afflicted by both guilt and a sense of displacement by the part of her husband’s life she has not shared. But for our purposes it is the generational divide between Pritam’s and Raghavan’s stories that may prove most interesting, for the older Pritam’s is still a world in which the delicacies of individual feelings are a sufficient field of self-knowledge and growth, while Raghavan’s has become the world in which, as Kannan argues in her essay on "Feminist Language," "we need to concentrate more on the social functions of language and on the way language effects communicative behaviors and some socio-cultural purposes" (30). Pritam seems to feel that the "empty space" awaiting Mukta is a personal and individual one, that wife, that son, to be overcome in a tender moment of marital understanding. But it is difficult to imagine that Raghavan, Kannan, or other writers of a more recent generation could ever discover so clear a way to fill that empty space. For them it is bounded by the institutions, customs, and other elements of a continuing social structure that leave more and more of their women counting lame legs, their metaphoric own and the culture’s as well.

Whether one encounters something like Bengali writer Bani Basu’s remarkable story of "Aunty" (in The Slate of Life), or something like Tamil novelist Vaasanthi’s When Bamboo Blossoms (Guwahati: Span Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1989), one finds the unempowered without choice no matter how unconventional they may attempt to be. In the former tale, an old woman is dumped in a dystopian rest home that moves its "inmates" around, erases names and addresses and pasts, and allows families to be definitively rid of unwanted old women. A selfless savant of her family, Aunty belongs to no one and nothing belongs to her–she is fully erasable. In the latter story, Vaasanthi uses the romance form–a Tamil woman living in remote Mizoram has a love affair with a handsome army officer and stabilizes the troubled son of a guerrilla leader–to underscore how thoroughly political unrest, ethnic differences, and the mischief of circumstance can destroy people’s everyday lives. But her life there must end not by her choice but by that of the men around her–the boy’s father who has politicized ethnic differences until they are lethal to outsiders, and Rajiv’s who kills the boy out of insane jealousy. Basu chooses the subtleties of family chronicle, Vaasanthi the technicolor hues of romance, but both find effective choice a category outside the purview of these women protagonists.

When one shifts a bit to narratives about women who do struggle, choose, and change their lives decisively as a result, the outcomes are not necessarily comforting. In Saraswathi Amma’s Malayalam tale, "The Subordinate" (also The Slate of Life), a sweeper woman kills her own daughter in order to keep her from becoming the involuntary lover of the same Commissioner who had sired the child eighteen years previously. From young virgin to arthritic middle-aged sweeper with a beauty long ago lost, she has held her life together through a sense of duty to her daughter, her job, and to Krishna, incarnation of Vishnu the preserver. Hers is the grim survival of one who has known fully "the helplessness of being born a woman in a poor family" (60), but so extreme a measure to save her daughter from repeating her own life is a triumph only of a certain kind.

But it is, nonetheless, oddly akin to that of the pivotal character in Hindi writer Mridula Garg’s "Daffodils on Fire," the title story of her 1990 collection from New Delhi's National Publishing House. On the face of it, this story is "silly" melodrama: a young woman who has drifted into marriage wakes with a fever and is befriended by a doctor’s wife in the next room who kills herself after an idyllic day sledding in Kashmir. We might take some interest in the flamboyance of the dead Gina, or the jadedness of the ailing narrator, Veena, about "romantic illusions" (1), or her husband’s impatience with his "forever tired" bride who is "dead to everything" like a "stick" of a "cold-blooded person" (3, 4). He is the sort of man who lectures his wife with that patronizing "you know," who books Kashmir honeymoons without consulting her, and who panics at a 106° fever, regressing until she mingles pity and affection for "this simple, down-to-earth Sudhakar" (12). Melodramatic suicide and banal domestic ennui might just tire us if we didn’t sense something else going on, riding the underbelly of these familiar forms and motifs as if it had no other way to travel.

Melodrama is that peripheral space where the usual rules of restraint are suspended and a flow of (embarrassing) emotions is permitted because the whole form has already been dismissed from serious attention. But Garg’s great title summons that kind of attention and a subversive strand of intensity winds its way through these pages. Veena–perhaps she is named for the subtle and challenging large sitar-like instrument, or after the Sanskrit word for longing or yearning as well as for discerning–Veena does not very obviously yearn for anything at all. But she is like the young girls in the writers’ anecdotes a few pages back who learned from their aunts to find a voice. An almost erotic intensity suffuses a backrub (7), their conspiracy as Gina makes fun of the male denials of death (12) and physical limitation (13), and Gina kissing her eyes and whispering what Veena already understood nonverbally, "Just be" (15). Veena can scarcely believe Gina’s intensity as they play in the snow: "Never before have I been conscious of a presence with such acuteness.… We dig it out, aim snowballs at each other and laugh because she does" (14).

Gina wants to share something with Veena more subtle than female humor at male egoism; she has a "presence" Veena doesn’t, and it is her bequest that Veena learn her gift for being. Veena’s adolescent ennui comes to seem symptomatic of the absence of any intense channels for her to follow in her world: she marries Sudhakar because he is not "objectionable." And her honeymoon fever? Sudhakar wants to tour madly to get his money’s worth out of the Kashmir vacation package; he also wants to experiment in his love-making during the non-touring slots on the daily schedule. Comically male? A minor wrinkle in domestic comedy? Or a symptom of regimen and segmentation that orders her body into too much organization according to somebody else’s highly socialized needs? If the latter, then her fever is a trope for the ideologemes (ideologerms?) of gender and marriage invading her system at the molecular level. She doesn’t want to interrupt the expansive plane of "languor" after love-making; he is on to the next item on the agenda. Her body is an immanent field, his an integral particle in movement through that field and beyond.

Veena cannot think her way out of this impasse: Gina is her tutor. Veena is already learning silence as a response to Sudhakar: "I had kept quiet" instead of responding to his discussion of sex, and "only to myself" dismisses his concern for how others back home will respond to their reports (4). Her fever comes with extreme back pain–because she has been on her back for him?–and she screams when he asks what’s wrong and tries to lift her bodily: "Death, I first thought. Murder, my senses spoke. Rape, another awareness. Kill - kill - kill, there was a strange clamour inside me but what I finally said was reasonable enough. ‘Pain,’ I said" (5) . He instantiates a cultural will that murders and rapes her kind of energy. Her thought, senses, and awareness may be threaded along the familiar conventional line of ironic marital comedy, but the progression also parallels two strands: one that is epistemological and expands from thought through the senses to the inclusive term of awareness, the other narrowing the form of violence down to its sexual fulcrum. She censors the "strange clamour" she can herself barely understand, hearing only its counter-violence ("kill") rather than Gina’s clue to a way of relating what her bodily senses tell her about her place and society and what her own unacknowledged yearnings for the plateaus of languor might signify.

What is it that Gina knows? We see a bit of it when Veena gets a letter Gina mailed her before committing suicide, telling her about her intentional death. We ought to recognize from the outset of the note, then, that this intentionality is her response to the unchosen death-in-life of regimen and segmentation. But here’s the problematic core of a note more generally about impermanence:

Sentimental? A romantic expiration at the peak of intensity? Or a sobering sense of the futility of such refuges–death is not always beautiful, nor love returned or well directed. All that matters is the flow of love itself, a reopening of Being even in the closed space of marriage: we are reading a renunciate teaching the twin lessons of nonattachment and compassion, emphasizing the discipline Veena needs to summon if she is to avoid a living death. When in her fever Veena thinks the daffodils are on fire, and associates that fire with both hell and cremation, Sudhakar laughs at the triviality of her terror. But Gina recognizes those burning flowers as something more like the resignation of sati than the renunciation of a saint. Veena lives in denial, repression, withdrawal; Gina wants her to engage with the kind of "presence" Veena discovered in her new friend.

If she does not learn this lesson, she will be like the protagonist in another story from this same collection, "To the Rose Garden," who constantly defers his utopian rose garden, spending time and money instead on the false comforts and commodities of middle class life. Or, perhaps, the Mrs. Dutta who is almost fully anesthetized in her middle-aged marriage except for the memory of her girlhood friend, Shyamala, who rejected conventions of gender and class and disappeared from the world of "Mrs. Dutta’s house [where] the curtains and sofa covers gathered dust over and over again" (147). On a vacation halfway between Shyamala and the gathering dust, she nearly freezes to death by disobeying her husband’s decision to wait until the morning to go "To The Glacier." Or the unnamed woman in "A Few Hours" who covers the pain of divorce by "spreading a warm shawl [of sex] on a shivering child" (94), her infantilized Mahesh who feels a "totally useless" failure when she rejects him.

None of these characters undergo the molecular intensities of Veena in "Daffodils on Fire," none of them have a teacher to serve as catalyst to their "strange clamour" within. There are a few of these teachers, not all of them entirely positive. The narrator of "Negation," for example, is so deeply invested in her middle class housewife economies, and so silenced by her gendered submissiveness to strong males, that she does not talk back to the artist who wants her money: she is angry with herself for repeating "his words even when I talked alone to myself" (130). He has learned to want nothing from the commodity culture, to withdraw from the wage economy of labor, to focus on his art. She gets as far as to recognize that "in giving up the secure sanctum of a practical housewife, I had imparted an awesome clarity to my vision. I saw not with my self-centered pragmatic eye-sight but with his ferocious vision" (130). That "ferocious vision" sees clearly her crisis: "what greater negation was there than that of fitting smugly into the tight frame of a middleclass housewife" (129), but she is not an artist, she cannot imagine Gina’s flow of generous spirit that might carry along. She is silenced; she is subjugated to this very male artist’s manipulative rants that brutalize her and requisition her cash.

For Saral in "Is This I?" with her collection of retouched photographs that turn back the clock of aging, the teacher is an artist who paints not the sex object Saral persists in envisioning herself to be, but a Saral who is "miserable," an "unlucky one" (87), "a web of crude lines around two huge agonised eyes staring into space. Frenzied eyes devouring everything around. Misty with tears, torpid with despair, dilated with fear, yet somehow blank with unconcern. The picture of an old woman, tormented and defeated by time" (86). She ends the story weeping bitterly in self-recognition, but the language describing the painting evokes the "somehow blank" state of ignorance in which she lives. Her appetites are both frenzied and tormented because they carry the energy of desire but have nothing to feed on. She is only eyes in a web, with no legs to take her out of the empty space, no way to free herself from the "crude lines" of an alcoholic husband and middle class poverty. The painter sees within, sees her attachment to her busy life in the radio station, sees her investment in the web of relations that positions her by class and gender even as they leave her "agonised." Somehow Saral has managed to stay largely ignorant of this frenzy and agony through her busy, self-distracting scenarios of radio interviews, merry friendships, and the "comforting" thrill of feeling that both colleagues and strangers "looked at her with desire" (83). Junk food for the psyche, such sexualization, and she is left with the bitter tears that flow between the intensity of unconscious desires and their frustration and misdirection in the limited forms available to her in society.

In "Time," the scientist Venkateshwaran tells his overly romantic lover that "Loving is like breathing, just as essential to life but not enough. Man does not live by breath alone" (22). It’s a devastating marginalization of her intense mythology of sexual love ("‘Yes, yes, oh yes,’ I whispered again and again," she replies at one point to some love bait he throws out). "One must laugh a little, love a little and work a little to be able to live a lot," he concludes, able to balance his flows nicely from his position as a male scientist immersed in his medical research. It’s a message similar to Gina’s in "Daffodils on Fire," only these flowers, whose sartorial petals and deep vaginal cups are twice described, must burn in the plot as surely as Gina must die. Dead Gina, lost Shyamala: where do all the ideals go in Garg’s world? Out of the reach of mortal protagonists, it seems, for the survivors simply hang at the point where organic intensities collide with the "web of crude lines" in the social field where, of necessity it seems, they must be invested. Down below the thresholds of persons, social relations, and gender images, there is a rich and varied flow of organic energy in these women, but the web of Garg’s plot lines screens it out, igniting them with agony and frustration, and finally throwing them off the precipice of her glaciated society as an "awareness" without a path. Given the claustrophobic horrors of the Dalit excerpts and the parables of the Aunts with which we began this chapter, our first steps into the subject of women on women have taken us to the sheer face of historical contradiction.

We’re standing, in other words, at the historical intersection with complicated and contradictory histories feeding in behind us, an equally complicated and contradictory tangle of futures before us, and an arch of inscriptions over our head in the form of these texts. Lakshmi Kannan’s stories are like a writer’s India Gate, the ceremonial arrivals arch on Mumbai’s waterfront, built after King George V visited, echoed by New Delhi’s War Memorial celebrating this century’s use of Indian soldiers as Imperial fodder, and symbol therefore of the uses to which Britain put Indian lives and raw materials. Think of India Gate as a two-way gate for the passage in and out of India, in and out of its traditions, a passage Kannan’s fiction makes in several ways. It’s an apt title for a collection (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1993) that gathers most of the work in her 1986 Rhythms (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House) and two of the stories from the 1992 Parijata (New Delhi: National Publishing House), apt because that fiction passes in and out of national boundaries (in stories that take place in America, that take strength from Saul Bellow and a number of other international writers), in and out of traditional roles (in protagonists that succumb to their gender roles and others that resist), in and out of Modernity (in case histories of cocktail corporate life and outsiders to the new economy).

The title story crosses these lines through the body of a woman who must endure the bartering over dowry:

"What’s all this trading going on for," she asks herself, as she overhears the "tedious haggling" over budgets and cash (139). She is a modern girl holding a position equal to that of her husband-to-be, but she is about to serve time in a traditional household where the women rise before dawn and the men "were gorging themselves with the food, slurping and belching noisily as they ate, smacking their lips loudly, scratching themselves on the belly and elsewhere without any inhibition" (146). From the "long greedy list" of what they require for dowry, they go on to a longer, greedier absorption of this bright young woman. A sister-in-law counsels, "Just grin and bear it. Play the game by the rules and then have your own life-style in Delhi. O.K.?" (149).

Delhi is utopia to this world where "not a single Tamil girl had ever thought of opening the [back] door and escaping to the outside world" (149): "Delhi, the capital. Everything will be enlarged in a place like that. Even [her husband] Balaraman. He may unlock himself. And grow bigger" (143). But utopias and reality differ. Padmini quickly learns that "Balaraman carried within him a germ of the same small town mind everywhere he went. One could be with him in Delhi or in New York, and the world would shrink to a nothing" (153). When she elects to move out of his house, his family, the marriage, the small town compound, and tradition, his response is "––?" (159): her move is incommensurate with the "germ" that is his mind.

With what does it cohere? Her reading, perhaps, of the names of the World War I dead on the Delhi India Gate with its rifle & helmet insignia, or the tunnel of travel that is Gateway of India in Bombay, even her recalling the Arc de Triumph in France, finding herself left out of their lists of soldiers and generals though "already dead in the market-place of marriage," having "given up all human dignity, going round and round in a servile bondage of work without expecting any affection or respect in return" (155-6). It’s interesting that at first she is only confused about the metaphor of the gate:

It’s not "tightly shut" like the backyard at Tiruchy, but it’s mystifying, unpromising, until she squints again at the Gate and sees it as a "threshold" with a "blue stretch of sky between the arch" (158).

She strains to see the Gate as a threshold rather than simply a crossing between barren stretches of land, and her success depends not only upon the pragmatic details of arranging her housing loan (159), but also upon mentally connecting the Gate with the closed door of the Tiruchy family compound. For Kannan’s Padmini, tradition, modernity, and a sense of India that bridges between the expanse and ease of Madras and the professional press of Delhi, all synchronize to carry her past the ellipses of her husband’s understanding. She never quite figures out why all those other Tamil girls fail to make it through that back door into their India Gate, but she does come to sense the resonance among all these gateways: she recognizes, in other words, that the politics of Empire, of Tradition, and of individual gendering are all at some deep level connected and even isomorphic. Kannan’s stories are littered with males who fail to imagine this threshold from their own perspective. In "Please, Dear God" (in Parijata) a husband’s childish selfish "clipped curses" of prayers for his wife’s recovery are "shamefully triumphant" (34, 39) when she comes out of her coma, the story showing little awareness of who she is except "a contract" (38) to take care of him. In "Sweet Reasonableness" a man mutters an fantasized dialogue in a restaurant, dissuading the wife he has slapped and demeaned from divorcing him. In "With Me, This Evening" Narendra blunders from wife to lover to yet another surrogate mother trying to prop up his own collapsing ego.

In her "international" stories, often set at writers’ workshops, men exoticize Kannan’s narrators, as Bill does in "Genesis" when he "had taken a vow to understand her" (Rhythms, 5), explains her own tradition to her, and prescribes her proper role–in western terms, to be sure, but still of course utterly patriarchal in his presumption. But they also mark her uneasiness at intersections of gender (homosexuality in "Maria") and race (her African friend in "Sable Shadows at the Witching Time of Night"), just as a number of the Indian stories mark uneasiness with class (as in "Islanders," whose protagonist has provisioned the house against flood season, but who is also discomfited by the plight of those less able financially to have secured their families’ well-being) or gender.

That liminal quality of standing at the India Gate of gender pervades her work, even when other vectors also cut through a story. "Moorings" longs for "a strong man … not too afraid of life … or of me" (Rhythms, 53). "Pain" is about the "circumscribed functional point" of defining womanhood by child-bearing or sexual allure: "Is that all she is worth, giving birth to us as an ultimate atonement for being female?" (Rhythms, 63, 62). A novella, Glass Walls, portrays a family’s evisceration when the young male wunderkind has a nervous breakdown–from being too perfect, one assumes. Everything has depended upon him, it seems, since his illness leaves his mother’s womb feeling as empty as the house, his father’s energy dispersing in tears, his sister’s marriage prospects utterly lost. In that family world the son is the sun while the old and the female are mere satellites without life of their own.

And in "The Coming of Devi," a frustrated mathematician has replaced her own identity with that of a conventional mother-self to seem less weird. She draws the rangoli (rice flour geometrical drawings of sacred designs) of Durga and prays for the "enigmatic smile" of the complex goddess to prevail over the destructive dhvamsha dance by the purgative Kali that lurks within every Durga, including most particularly herself. The composition of her "conventional" self, of the sacred diagram, of the goddess’s conflicting dimensions, all serve as versions of the life she feels there on the threshold of her own India Gate. There is nothing simple about this composition: you compose it as you go, suffering the limitations of material constraints and imagination, enduring as well as possible the burden of the eyes and judgments of those around you, aware only that no ultimate pattern or final answer "solves" the questions of living in an age between eras. She must guard against the dangerous and symptomatic anger of Kali as carefully as she must fend off the economic and patriarchal and familial bonds that seek to enwrap her in one or another of the psychological prisons that await her. She must, that is, have, against the forces arrayed against her, a voice that will inflect her being amidst the social babble at century’s end.


Streevani means Woman’s Voice. It is also the name of a specific project group that has among other activities been recording women’s oral histories, studying their self-images, and publishing their voices in a series of books mostly sponsored by the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, a Catholic organization. Their titles suggest the range of niches they’ve studied. Struggling to Be… Myself (n.d.) studies four middle class women in 1982’s version of Bombay. Beyond the Fire Line (1991) looks at forest-dwelling tribals in Karnataka after the Forest Service shut them out of their traditional livelihood by closing the woodlands with a fire line boundary. Pan on Fire (1988) tells the lives of eight Maharashtran Dalit women. And Single, Celibate, Dedicated Women Tell Their Stories (1990) of living in "secular institutes" that are akin to social service organizations.

The Streevani project is clear about the meaning of its feminism. "It stands for complete equality and aims at transformation of the present day value system into a totally non-exploitative one" (Struggling, vi). They aim to link "self-images" to the "structural causes" in the society, helping women to see that both images and structural causes can be "shaped and re-shaped" (3). There are methodological problems with this "participatory research," and one can see some class tensions emerging at times, a desire to conform to the interviewer’s agenda at others, a certain shape coming into the material as a result of the process of interviewing, group discussions, and the researchers’ sharing their methods and objectives with participants. For the reader, the effort at outlining and justifying this methodology makes the books feel like reflexive narratives, ones that make clear the assumptions that determine much of the final product of any project of representation.

These four books sketch the lives of women from different classes in different situations, all of them up against the gender dynamics recorded elsewhere in, say, the three journalistic accounts by Anees Jung, or Vrinda Nabar’s Caste as Woman (New Delhi: Penguin, 1995), or Sara S. Mitter’s Dharma’s Daughters (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1991). Line these nonfiction accounts up with the sampling in a massive anthology like Susie Tharu’s and K. Lalita’s Women Writing in India (New York: The Feminist Press, 1993), and what strikes you is the consistency of fiction and nonfiction.

The narratives are detailed and depressing, the editorial touch sometimes not at all light. Vrinda Nabar culminates her Post-Script with this paragraph:

Nabar studies the phases of vulnerability women pass through in childhood, marriage, widowhood, with extra attention to dowry and motherhood, in an unrelenting compilation of horrors visited upon the unfortunate and the unempowered. Mitter’s narrative has a journalist’s practiced irony with all the delicious insider/outsider twist of an American daughter-in-law in a Bengali family, but it also juxtaposes the prehistory of gendering in Hindu myth and tradition to composited lives of Bombay women and their efforts at change.

These projects share many details, if not always a tone, with Indira J. Parikh’s and Pulin K. Garg’s Indian Women: An Inner Dialogue (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1989), a book which grew out of the authors’ work with a thousand women articulating the costs and particulars of having redefined themselves, of "the struggle to grow out of given roles and into new roles; to defy roles and the prescriptive absolutism of tradition but at the same time to carry forward the spirit and wisdom contained in the social structure and in the cultural role of women; and, eventually, to define and crystallize personal identity around meanings which integrate the old and the new and give it a different shape" (13). They are empathetic to the pain involved in this struggle, insightful about the many double-binds and contradictions through which their subjects pass, compassionate about the hesitation "at the threshold" that recurs so frequently.

They end, one might say, with a hymn to the "self-born," a "phoenix" rising from the many deaths of traditional gendering to "create a space as vast as the ocean both gentle and furious; space as boundless as the sky both gloriously bright and gloomy; space as illusive as the wind which whispers and storms; space as intense as the fire which softly warms and cheers and burns; and, finally, a space as resourceful as the earth with both limitless powers to replenish and emptiness" (202). Water, air, wind, fire, and earth, the elements, the raw material of a primordial earth goddess poised at the threshold of a new subjectivity. If one can suspend for a moment one’s upper-crust fastidiousness, the prose can be seen appropriating the myths that had been harnessed to the chariot of patriarchy. By a deft mingling of traditional Hindu flexibility and a bit, perhaps, of postmodern derring-do, the fixed icons of a Radha or Sita step down off the posters and become re-inventors of the culture:

Notice how the tone of this passage reminds one of political speeches built to elicit cheers, but then also of a fortune-teller’s or hypnotist’s rushed whispers conjuring the power of self-fulfilling prophecy. Notice, too, how much this passage, rhymes with poststructural accounts of subjectivity. Her "becoming" is an open process rather than the attempt to realize an essence (either feminist or patriarchal). Her "multifaceted" definition suggests of Deleuzian multiplicities. Her "magic" is a transformative power of recoding, to thieve a word from Hal Foster. The twinning of "enlivening" and "destructiveness" dispenses with any unilinear plot of Necessity, just as a "flux of push and pull" keeps alive the heterogeneity both within and without, its "ever-changing" relations and interconnections posting a diacritical against an Aristotelian sense of structure. Words like "energy" diverge from the substantives of our traditional models, and "pulsating" demystifies pronouns as much as "the system" demystifies the putative sacred status of social forms.

Streevani may have the factuality of its namesake projects, it may smolder with the dark anger of a Vrinda Nabar or the pained ironies of a Sara Mitter, or it may go beyond liberalism’s egalitarian politics to change "the system" and even our fundamental understandings of consciousness. Because they locate the daily lives of women in relation to myth, traditional economic and social forms, and Modernity’s new forms, their work has a fine resonance attentive to both "prescriptive roles based on idealized models of a bygone era" and "the emerging cognitive map of modern society."

These rhetorical flavors blend and fuse with the life experiences recounted by journalists and field investigators and interchange more freely than one might have guessed with fictional accounts of women’s lives. One might have expected the Literary Machine’s inherent class biases to hopelessly torque the fiction into innumerable banalities of the bourgeoisie. But though there are examples to confirm that expectation, a surprising amount of fiction escapes it, owing perhaps to something of the same edge one finds in Vrinda Nabar’s Caste as Woman. Nabar repeatedly emphasizes the collective over the individual scale of reference, and she insists that "to be caste as woman in India is to live out this triple-layered existence" of three-fold discrimination by sex, caste, and class (50). The intensity with which these categories manifest their gradations and inequities keeps Indian fiction from disappearing very often down the rabbit-hole of pure individuality. Absorption into such a hermetic interiority would be difficult given how quickly the preconditions of postmodernity have assaulted India’s long-naturalized mores and social forms, already reeling from twentieth-century history.

But to see fiction’s version of the struggle, we should skim across a file of short fiction before selecting a few novelists for a closer look. A compelling virtue of the Tharu and Lalita anthology is that it draws upon so many of the languages of India; for readers outside India, for all readers bound to English, the anthology makes available internationally an unmatched set of translations. It’s not unprecedented; Kali for Women (New Delhi) has issued a series of translated anthologies including Truth Tales (1986), The Slate of Life (1990), In Other Words (1992), and Inner Spaces: New Writing by Women from Kerala (1993), and other books represent women writers well–Githa Hariharan’s A Southern Harvest (New Delhi: Katha, 1993), for example, or the Katha Prize Stories volumes that began appearing in 1991. But Women Writing In India claims more than "literary" merit for its stories; its editors looked "for pieces that illuminated women’s responses to historical developments and ones that gave insight into the dimensions of self-fashioning and the politics of everyday life as they affected women" (xxii).

Part of those politics of everyday life echo the nonfictional litany of horrors with which we began. Many deal with the waste of women’s energies within marriage: Saraswathi Amma’s "Marriages Are Made in Heaven" with its grotesque ironies of the marriage market, Achanta Sarada Devi’s "Moonlight Locked in the Woods" with its gothic night-sacrifice of a sexually abused girl, Kundanika Kapadia’s "Seven Paces in the Sky" in which Vasudha’s clear knowledge of what is happening to her in marriage is not enough to protect her from the unlimited license of male privilege, Kamala Das’s "Rice Pudding" in which a love match condemns a couple to the poverty that grinds her to death, leaving only a rice pudding to her children, Meherunnisa Parvez’s "Black Magic" in which a poor girl is sold off as the Patel’s third wife, or Sarah Joseph’s "Rain" in which a woman finds herself a spectacle of arrest in the monsoon rains, immobilized by ambivalences and her utter lack of options as a wife and mother. Moving up and down the social scale, ranging from rural to urban settings, drawn from stories originally in Malayalam, Telegu, Gujarati, and Hindi, this cluster alone corroborates how often economics and gender intersect to empty marriage of possibility, at least for its female participants.

At their most intense, these horrors of "everyday life" name the principle structures within which women find their very survival at risk, let alone their pleasure or their options for self-realization. The inversion or internalization of cultural violence dominates Baby Kamble’s Marathi autobiography, Our Wretched Lives, a litany of the vicious mother-in-law, the wife-beating husband, and the woman-to-woman violence in which anger and revenge is redirected from patriarchal constraints to each other. A husband’s primary allegiance to male orders of prestige and self-image normally only diminishes a woman’s importance, but its potential to make absolutely pathological the male psyche is portrayed in Annupana Niranjana’s Kannada story, "The Incident–and After." This story depicts a husband’s cowardice during his wife’s rape and his cold dismissal of her afterwards, once she can only be an embarrassment to him in his male pecking order.

Modernity itself seems the structure most pointedly singled out in another cluster of stories. Excerpted at some length in the anthology, Sulekha Sanyal’s 1956 Bengali novel, Nabankur, gives one a barely post-Independence look at what modernity might have felt like within the context of gender. At this point, the consumer culture was less in evidence than now–the pizza parlors, the jeans shops, and the premium-priced Japanese electronics were not so much in evidence. But the long struggle for Independence had made use of western political ideals–their presence, at any rate, in the British public version of ideology made them inescapable, and their social corollaries affect the lives of the villagers in this Bengali novel as dimly sensed futures with varying mixes of menace and hopefulness. For the protagonist, Chobi, Calcutta seems a distant urban escape (to "the world around") from what is at times a ruthlessly gendered existence, her uncle Adhir’s socialist activism has provided her a way to think an egalitarian difference from hierarchical arrangements of caste and gender, and her beloved lower-caste Tamal has promised her a marriage different from the formal stasis of the "proper" match her father has arranged for her.

The novel notes a number of points in her life when Chobi worries her mother because, even as a young girl, Chobi refuses sexual difference, asking for the same share of food the boys get, refusing to cry when beaten for such audacity, expecting not to be inferior to anyone. Sanyal makes sure we don’t see Chobi as a female man by marking her share of "maternal" traits (she is, for example, her little brother Pradip’s great comforter). Sanyal also keeps the women of the house (grandmother, aunt, mother) ambivalent about Chobi, sometimes responding almost viciously to her failure to practice compliance and deference, sometimes more proud of her than of the sons, sometimes tenderly agonized over the possibly dire consequences of her unconventionality, sometimes defensive or protective of her. Chobi’s sister Sefu weeps enough over having to replace Chobi in the proposed marriage, but lacks the strength to turn her tears into Chobi’s refusal.. I take this balancing act by Sanyal as a way of poising Chobi and her family’s women on the very edge of a tidal shift that was beginning to bring more and more Indian women some unfamiliar alternatives–India gates–to the prison-like gender roles one often finds in fiction.

Such change is a fearful thing in the fifties with so few role models in view, especially to a villager in the era before The Media. When Chobi refuses, she is a wail of distress to her aunt and mother, a distress that focuses a bit on the mésalliance of caste that Chobi may make with Tamal, but which seems mostly a wild anxiety about what horrors might come out of so great a break with traditional family patterns. As one might expect, it is the men who spell out, explicitly, what it means for a child to refuse an elder, for a woman to defy a man, for a daughter to refuse arranged marriage. The grandfather calls her a "memsahib," a "stain on the family name," two epithets charged in the postcolonial atmosphere, but when the category of pollution was still unquestioned in many sectors of society. He even urges she be (literally) locked up (if she won’t be metaphorically jailed in a "proper" marriage). But most tellingly, the grandfather Dakshina’s greatest anger is focused on his son, Kulada, for failing to bring his daughter up properly. He has failed, that is, to maintain the succession of severe discipline upon his women. Dakshina has modifiers like "sternly," "steady," and "raging"; Kulada’s voice, in contrast, "sounds more like a scream of distress," as if Sanyal were using generations to mark the gradations by which modernity was eroding traditional roles.

Chobi’s response is refusal, quiet refusal, and she emerges from her locked room to be lashed out of the house, but not, ultimately, out of the family. She is able to maintain her connection, and when, after her uncle’s death, she leaves finally and permanently for Calcutta and that "world around," it is her father who sees her off at the station, putting money into her hands to ease her transition to urban life. Why does Sanyal allow such a connection? Why not the melodrama of catastrophic rupture, one that happened often enough in reality (and in fact still happens today)? I think the answer lies in Sanyal’s refusal to let her thinking about this experience be captured on the plane of melodrama; I think so because of Chobi’s thoughts as she sits on the train, beginning to move from the station, wondering about the unknown and unknowable life for which she is heading:

We hear the openness of the metaphor, the present tense of its connotations matching that of what "she feels": for a villager like Chobi, modernity is utterly unknown, even if the most innocent of her illusions have already (long since) passed away through Pradip’s imprisonment and her own involvement in her radical uncle’s projects.

But the railroad… What irony that a favorite machine of the futurists should again be modernity’s metaphor! And irony doubled, since this railroad was built by the British to facilitate their management of a colony. But no, not irony. Sanyal’s insight is that Chobi’s drama would be trivialized by romance or melodrama: it is not simple, not containable. It has the radical openness of a process rooted in the mixedness of "colonial" and "indigenous," binaries that barely hold any orbit of difference around each other. By which I mean that the means of Chobi’s resistance to the prison (of gender, caste, class) that indigenous and colonial "traditions" conspired to produce is (1) partly colonial–the railroad as denotative and connotative medium of communication, the administrative and change-originating metropolis, the "professional world" of a cash economy–and (2) partly indigenous, signaled in the partial alliances within gender and generations, and (3) partly anti-colonial (the progressive–Western liberal–ideals of Uncle Abdir, themselves compounded of "external" and "internal" currents).

This turn through a fifties novel seems important to me as a way of trying to recover what modernity feels like before the evidence begins to pile up. If the railroad is a rhythm into an open future for an eager Chobi, her road feels quite different to the mother she leaves behind:

The wind, not a rail window that divides Chobi from village India; a path, not a railroad; past, not future; failure, not expectancy. A delicious ambiguity: is the failure Mamata’s (for not properly raising Chobi, she has failed the past, failed to perform tradition), or is it that of Tradition (for failing Chobi? for failing Mamata? for failing to "manage" modernity?).

Sanyal’s fiction models this moment of history with a complexity that many writers found necessary to contain. Certainly she knew history in a very immediate way; she was a schoolgirl in Chittagong when it was bombed in 1942, she was in high school in Korkandi (in what is now Bangladesh) when nationalist revolutionaries were hiding out there, she was a college student in Calcutta on the eve of Independence and a socialist activist who was imprisoned, she was part of Partition’s exodus from East Pakistan, she was divorced long before it was either common or even marginally acceptable (291-2). Which is not an argument about fiction imitating life, but a way of remembering just what Sanyal’s generation saw (her dates, 1928-1962, aligning her adolescence with the final crescendo of the Independence movement, the turbulence of agitations following Independence, and India’s emergence under Nehru as a significant force in world affairs; it is in her lifetime that village India was convulsed into confrontation with modernity).

Considerably less optimistic, Binapani Mohanty’s later (1989) Oriya story, "Tears of Fire," tells of a widowed vegetable seller Ketaki who goes on a killing spree when a very modern young woman who befriends her is raped and murdered by the petty thugs who had been shaking down Ketaki on her daily rounds. The crime is their revenge upon that young woman for speaking out against their pathological form of local rule. Ketaki has been surviving on the income from her sales and her children’s labor. On the subsistence fringe of the new modern economy, she has to submit to the power of those who benefit from the modern entrepeneurial economy (a contractor’s wife, e.g.). But because the disruptions of Modernity have also destroyed tradition’s veil of respect protecting women this band of unemployed (unemployable) young men terrorize her and the martyred Moti. Her "answer"–killing the whole band–is no solution at all, since it leaves her children defenseless after her arrest and only a few co-victims of modernity (the young men) removed rather than the structural causes of her extreme state. Mohanty’s grimness rises from the absence of any accessible solution to the contradictions within which Ketaki finds herself.

Similarly, in P. Vatsala’s Malayalam story, "The Escape," there is none. The poor Janaki (another name for Sita) is loyal to Ramachandran (whose name recalls the mythical Rama, the excellent one); but he is the expatriate vehicle of his clan’s financial rise in the world. His fate is to carry the traditional extended family into modernity’s corporate jungle; his "escape" is to swim and relax at Janaki’s house, reliving for a few hours the village idyll of childhood, before emissaries drag him back to the family compound. "The Escape" may be taken as a sign of that great diaspora of Keralan workers, particularly to the middle east, in search of "gulf money" to offset the desperately limited economic odds at home. Kerala’s population is in some ways a latter-day slave class imported for domestic and other undervalued forms of labor, Vatsala’s strategy being to represent not the ordeal in Dubai’s oil mansions or Silicon Valley’s R&D labs, but the absence, disruption, and eddies of familial greed back home.

In Mrinal Pande’s Hindi story, "Fellow Travelers," Nirmala explodes with anger when her boy takes sweets from the grotesquely low caste goondas in the rail car; her dead alcoholic husband, a likely victim of modernity himself, has left her exposed to the new kind of power that modernity’s criminals have acquired in the new India. Even Veena Shanteshwar’s Kannada tale, "Her Independence," registers the horrific impact of modernity: Vimala is exhausted from working and housekeeping, with no help from her husband who works in another city’s branch of the modern economic machinery. Though the story ends with her anger emerging in an impassioned speech at a women’s rally, the sheer forcedness of the ending marks its unreality. Making the courage to speak out a function of frustration is a way of wishing for the personal to become the political, but the abrupt shift from domestic victim to public orator marks the hugeness of the gap such a becoming would require. The ending is a Post-It closure to an open history of inequity’s inflection of marriage.

In both reality and fiction, efforts to speak can be considerably more difficult. The Streevani project’s narrators, for example, are the remnant of much larger groups of participants; the others, presumably, failed ultimately to approximate the narrative formulae offered by the project leaders. Perhaps they lost courage, lost heart, or just lost hold of this alien form of individual life-narrative. In the anthology we’re perusing, child filmstar Hamsa Wadkar’s Marathi autobiography tells her troubled tale in which impulse repeatedly lifts her outside of both conventional behavior and of ways of explaining or understanding how and why she was striking out as she did. She tells, for example, of leaving her husband and drinking with a Mr Joshi:

"Panic," "delirium," "mesmerized"–these are ways of trying to name a state beyond any known frame of reference, that of a woman whose indulgence in alcohol and sexuality matches, for a time, that common among the men she knows. She spends three years in some version of a rural prison with Joshi before escaping, returning home at the cost of a rape. The whole episode was narrated, she pauses to try to say, to explain what it was to leave and stay away at the height of her fame, thus finding her name "erased from the slate of time" (197). "Why did I leave, why did I stay away, how did I stay, why did it happen? I had no answer, so why should I blame my fate?" (197).

Her speechlessness is the most interesting moment of her narrative. This muteness has taken her beyond the "how" and "why" of her world, its force a function of being so utterly scripted as the actress of Marathi womanhood. That script contains no asides, no sotto voce murmurs of resistance, only conformity to her husband’s tight rule, the filmworld’s shooting schedule, or her lover’s rural retreat to marital slavery. Lacking any prompts to explain her scene, she is beyond any appeal to any such order as that of "fate": for she who chooses the outside, there is no protection, no guarantee, no place in any scheme.

Or consider Dudala Salamma’s Telegu autobiography, which focuses upon her participation in a Hyderabad peasant’s revolt in the late forties. An oral history gathered by a women’s project in the 1980s, hers is a tale of working hard to barely survive, of joining the communists to benefit the people against greedy landlords, of torture and death in an uneven battle between the state and the people. "Even if I tell you these troubles," she says to her interviewer, "you can’t see or feel them" (221); she is sometimes hostile when they want to know why she acted, juxtaposing her peasant’s strength that matched the men’s with the very different world of the interviewer who "can read a few letters" and "hold the pen." Debilitated from her torture and privations, she knows that her early experience of living in a genuinely liberating movement is beyond the understanding of those living in modernity. "I don’t tell anyone my story–not to my daughters-in-law, not to any human being" (224). Her body escaped cultural mapping as decisively and disastrously as Hamsa Wadkar’s, if for quite different reasons she knows because of her radicalism and her closeness to its material causes. Wadkar experiences a peculiar spectral alienation, her film stardom the symptom of postmodernity’s leading edge, in contrast to Dudala Salamma’s experience more typical of the first half of the century.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her radical past is that Dudala Salamma all but taunts her liberal humanist interlocutors who are busily framing, recording, and editing her life for an archive. "What is the use of your holding the pen?–my courage stands tall … to us communism is for several lives. It is like a low fever that never leaves you. It was out of such desire that I entered the forest" (222). Her rhetorical stick is the distance between words and bodies in action, between the flow of data into the academy’s archives and the flow of bodies into the liberationist utopianism of communism. Her targets have less in common with her than with the Tamil writer Ambai’s protagonist in "The Squirrel." This narrator finds a trove of nineteenth-century women’s books, only to discover they are about to be burned, a sati of a marginalized past. The bittersweet ironies of contacting an archive of voices that live before her is frustrating, surely, though this bond, unlike Salamma’s, is something private, individual, personal:

The passage squints a bit, implying the politics of losing these texts, this history of women’s leadership in freedom struggles, but also strikingly individual and "magic" in its character, as if the only flow released by this connection were one that begins and ends as the interiority of a contemporary woman. But the "as if" is vital to balancing the doubleness of the "squint," for resonance with past lives is also the possibility of bodily sensation flowing into structural analysis. It is the "magic" that worries one, for there is a resignation to mystery in that metaphor, as if what Dudala Salamma might say in her blunt way was a peasant radicalism whose middle class corollary remains unthought and inaccessible.

And so the grain of this anthology’s fiction, nearly all of it emerging from the privileged sectors of Indian society, carries these flecks of light within a stony texture of hardship and unspelt magic. When it approaches the great class divide that is one of a number of fracture lines breaking up any totality of Woman, this fiction often finds itself staring, arrested, across a gap that only a shock can even begin to make it comprehend. A story like Ismat Chugtai’s "The Quilt" grasps at several of these fracture lines, using the point of view of a needy but uncomprehending child as a metaphor of the difficulty of articulating its material. Her career as a key writer in Urdu began long before women writers were well tolerated, and she had, in fact, to defend herself against a charge of obscenity when "The Quilt" was prosecuted in 1944. Put briefly, the story is of a wealthy Muslim woman whose husband prefers boys, and who finds bodily pleasure with one of her servant girls under the titular Quilt. To the child through whom we get this story, the nights are times of odd noises and a quilt that "was rocking as though an elephant were caught in it" (133).

"The Quilt" is about the asymmetries of the gender divide, the powerlessness of married women, economic power and sexuality, and the relationships among women across the boundaries of class and age group. Begum Jan and her husband "get" who they want because they are like feudal potentates with the money to secure the objects of their desire. But the Begum is also a woman, and this complication means that her beloved Rabbu is sometimes pulled away by her own family, sometimes by her own resentments of class positioning, sometimes by the presence of the young girl whom the Begum begins to want as well.

They are all three subject to other demands–of their fathers, husbands, sons. The lines of class and age cut fissures between them that the young narrator can feel but not articulate, any more than she can say what is happening under the blanket, what the Begum's caresses are, or what any of it means. She doubles in her young innocence the imposed infantilized position to which the author also is held, for even these intimations of a world of response against male law, and a pleasuring beyond patriarchal scripting, was enough to land Chugtai in court. Chugtai is expected to write as if her experience stopped with puberty and failed to register either the new zones of adult pleasure or the worldly asymmetries with which they're woven.

We are familiar enough now with sexuality serving as the bodily site most fiercely charged in the law and rhetoric that swirls around revolutions in gender and other social forms. So it is not too surprising to see how her coworkers respond to Rasheed Jahan's Safia (in the Urdu "That One"). Safia is the only character to attempt empathy with a disfigured outcaste supplicant at her school. The rest of the teachers "started teasing me about her visits" with innuendoes about "Safia's admirer"–it is all but equivalent to a sexual affair for Safia to have even an uneasy, awkward relationship with someone before whom she "ought to observe purdah," according to the "venerable teacher of Islamic theology," someone grotesque to her colleagues because of her class, her "low" character, her disease-ravaged face. It is the sweeper's rage that is most violent and intense, however, a rough, violent thrashing full of cursing and malevolent displacement of her own lifetime of indignities on the bottom rung of "decency." "Now you know everything" (122), That One says as she disappears from the school and her long fascination with the one "decent" woman able to see even a bit of her humanity. But only a bit. "I felt awkward and humiliated" (121) as her halting efforts to reach across the class divide make her "an object of ridicule at the school."

Razia Sajjad Zaheer's Urdu "Lowborn" features another well-intended middle class woman who wants the wall knocked down between her and a lower class mixed-caste couple. But Ram Avatar only looks down and is silent, and Shyamali leaves instead of permitting Sultana to impose middle-class domesticity upon a mismatch of class and caste. Sultana in her rage of frustration catches the persistent class feeling within herself: "So it was so, that low-caste women … Oh, no, she tried to shake the thought off" (152)–tried, but the thought that floods in from the culture all around her is always already there, driving even her wish to will it away. Sultana does finally understand what Shyamali makes clear to her in a later encounter, that loving Ram Avatar was not enough to overcome the gendering and the class dynamics that obligate him to "give" her "a living," even though Shyamali has "the courage to support ten like him" (153). Love has not enough to do with it. From the names alone, which make this a triangle between the sultan class of owners, the male underclass incarnating the god-linked (Ram) traits of patriarchy, and the dark goddess of female power (Shyamali's name is another for Kali), we ought to have known we were up against a historical accretion of roles and status not easily dissolved.

As middle class socialists, these writers are in Sultana's position, privileged with the education and leisure to pursue class relations, unscathed by the indignities that low-caste activists endure, and stymied by the residue of difference that persists even when, as with Sultana and Shyamali, they share a common gender. Jahan and Zaheer have striven not to falsify, not to implant a middle-class consciousness in these underclass women, but also to maintain some linkage along the gender line. But neither Safia nor Sultana succeed in working successfully across the great divide of class, and one ought not miss that cautionary note in tales that observe the persistent effects of a history that makes very difficult any political gestures toward solidarity, let alone equality.

This modern narrative machinery is doubled in Mahasweta Devi's Bengali "Children" by the development and relief machinery of the IMF-World Bank script for the postcolonial state. In this tale, a government officer goes in search of pygmies hovering just beyond the reach of his relief efforts. They turn out to be tribal Agarias, fugitives malnourished into stunted growth because, once, they killed a government officer wading into tribal life and assuming the modern state's paternal care-taking role. They, it seems, felt it as an invasion seeking to normalize them, bringing them into a modern civil society of which they wanted no part. Cackling, dancing, and rubbing their penises against him in a burlesque of their own historical treatment, their collective tears reduce him to tears and self-condemnation:

He cannot scream, only weep, so enervating is the particular kind of guilt that Modernity breeds in its officialdom. It is the guilt of having submitted to the mass identity of class, to the marginalization and management of peoples, to the impersonal distancing of annihilating ways of life from the safety of his social oubliette. Shyamali and That One are as stunted as the Agarias, and by the same conspiracy between traditional casteism and modern classism on the one hand, and the modulations of traditional and modern gendering on the other.

It's the lesson Champudi learns in Varsha Adalja's "Poor Champudi," a Gujarati girl whose sudden success imitating the sexy dancers in Hindi films enrages her paternalistic brother. In this case, the cultural machinery developing the roles of male patron and female object is the movie gendering complex, but the effects of a divide of wealth and power that Champudi's family cannot bridge are akin to what we've been seeing in these stories. She is "poor" both literally and as an unwitting victim of the stylizing of her body movements and of the privileging of the male gazers who purchase the space to ogle her and fondle her furtively as she passes through their midst. Devi's Agarias burlesque just this distance, this sexual touching, this subordination of an other to the controller's appetite (here for arousal, in their own case for dominion). The act of anthologizing these stories powerfully reinforces the editors’ attempts to voice the intersection of gender issues with those of caste, class, and "modernization."

However unsurprising that intersection is for us, these days, it is nonetheless striking to see the difference between reading these stories in an anthology with this story line to it and reading them in isolation. My students psychologize the characters, what some might call a purely personological conception, if they read a single story, but something else happens when they see the same story within the successively more particular contexts of Indian writing, by women, selected for their transversal through this intersection. I am often struck by the relevance of A.K. Ramanujan's play between universals and context-sensitive rule systems, because the multiplicity of contexts that are in play at any given point are a natural part of the daily life and the historical aesthetics of many South Asian sensibilities. The contradiction between Champudi's exuberant dancing and her exhilaration in the pleasure her audience takes in her is revealing, but not unexpected. She loves the feel of movement, she is also Lolita imitating Bollywood’s gendered sexualities, and her availability is overdetermined by class, caste, and gender. But her new self-validation is both functioning and corrupting. These are harmonic tones with striking political and psychological implications, but the interplay between the aesthetics of rhythms or overtones and the ideologies of class and gender are, again, not unexpected.

In Manjul Bhagat's Hindi story, "Bebeji," we read the story of a widow who "adopts" a tandur snack cook and his wife, to the consternation of her modern urban son off earning his fortune in the new economy. She is compassionate to make their lives easier, eventually housing them in the empty rooms of the large family home she still occupies; she is exploitative, imposing a middle class domesticity upon them as pseudo-family who must play out her psychodrama without the security of blood relation and legal rights. When the son discovers how far matters have gone, he wonders if she has "gone mad" (434), and she is, in a manner of speaking, quite mad, a third string to her bow. The fourth is the lonely, unempowered status she occupies as a widow cut off by economic change from the family in which she would, traditionally, have had a role and significance. This fourth string completes the chord which Bhagat quite deftly leaves sounding through the son who "pondered" the story's question–is she mad? Madness means nonconformity to forms and expectations, inconsistency outside a range of tolerance, and incoherence in relation to what counts, conventionally, as coherent. Madness is also a symptom of failed revolution, as Bebeji's efforts to retune her harmonics might suggest: she can create only the delusion that her passage from clan matriarch to middle class widow can finesse the sense of place and purpose from one and the autonomy and power of the other. She cannot, obviously, finesse the society.

Abburi Chaya Devi's Telegu protagonist manages the contradictions of her position as "Wife–Working Woman" as a middle class comedy rather than in Bebeji's slide into pathos. The university student Sujatha comes with a liberationist agenda, seething and burning at the unjust authority wielded by the husband, how consistently "he has an answer for all my desires" (374), how unequally the relationship has run its course. Sujatha ends up with a rich case history of an Indian marriage, the protagonist winds up seeing "myself more clearly now," but also planning a match between her husband's younger brother and Sujatha. Why does that comedy slice through as the end of the story? It had been a drama of a younger woman drawing out of the protagonist a confused tangle of contradictory feelings. But this tangle has a marital closure ("'Of course I'd marry him [again, as the question asks]. Only him,' I said fiercely"). Moreover, this closure asserts itself both in her own feelings and in her plan to enclose Sujatha as well. Perhaps Sujatha is enough like her when she was younger that the protagonist allows the "working woman" side of her to emerge even in the domestic space of the living room. Perhaps making a joke out of her certainty that her husband would not marry her again–"he is a man, you know"–invokes a form of humor among women that is a minority's (not so) secret politics. "You need a sense of humor to make it go," she says of marriage, one that holds the contradictions of roles and institutions still at angles to one another, but submerged in a convention of humor that contains its explosive energies.

There are any number of such strategies of sublimation. The ultimate is, of course, Rajalekshmy's Malayalam "Suicide," the wife so swallowed in a heartless marriage that she stops taking the medicine she needs. But there is also Pratibha Ray's Oriya "Blanket," a totem fretted over by the women in the family until Mira finally stops seeing it as everyone's multivalent signifier, a pointer to his/her chosen sentimental compensation for the voids and absences in middle class life. Or there are the Jamesian stories of the protagonist who, late in life, realizes the chance missed–Gauri Deshpande's Marathi "That's The Way It Was" or Hajira Shakoor's Urdu "Life Sentence." These stories' egoists see much too late how their narrow (self)focus has desiccated both their lives and those around them. No doubt the sentimental romances they belatedly wish they'd had would prove no more fulfilling than their actual lives, but the regret is a signifier that some magical way of understanding and living at least was there, if not in any Now a protagonist could lay claim to. These stories are almost desperate to find some carrier of that utopian hatchway, even if it is now closed and lost, just to know that the position of these characters is not hopeless, has not all along been hopeless.

Kamal Desai's Marathi "Close Sesame" develops just that intensity of desperation, its protagonist suddenly unable to teach her routine mathematics class routinely, and just as suddenly able to turn her theatrical role as Elizabeth Barrett into a vehicle for an edge of intensity honed by her gendered place outside of the marriage scene. She has orchestrated a hyper-organized life for herself, doubtless to repress her outsider's status in a society of marriage. But the play awakens something, and as, in a dream, she tries to return to a house she feels she must know–her identity? her body?–"the house falls, noiselessly, like rain in a picture" (272). I think it is her defenses more than her self that dissolves. The next morning's resolve to repress, to "close sesame," is inadequate to relieve her distress over the routine of teaching and the experience of entering a room in which "all eyes converge on her and wander at leisure over her body" (275). The "bitter irony" that enters the situation registers her age, too old for her to be The Object of the Gaze, too young for her not to be noticed. She copes by striking obliquely at the director Chandrashekhar, missing rehearsals and giving him "the feeling that she has escaped him" (280); she strikes more directly at Shrinivas, playing Browning:

Her Elizabeth is not the compliant backdrop to the imperial Browning, and even her student protege is outraged: "'But she shouldn't have acted that way.' She cannot hold back her tears. She cries luxuriously, with abandon, and all the girls stare at her astonished and fearful. Why should she cry like that" (285).

Why indeed… Because that "somebody else" took a fixture of imperialism–the British play–and turned it against the males who had grafted that imported hypermasculinity onto their own indigenous inequities? And turned it also against her own quieted existence, turned it on the girl's own intense emulation in which luxuriousness and abandon are to be found only when roles mapped onto, locked within, the body break like rain, like the rain of tears or of dreams that flow as lives cannot.

Triveni's Kannada story, "The Final Decision," is not perhaps the most outstanding story in the collection–its melodrama features a woman who catches herself almost succumbing to her ex-husband's return, hoping she will rejoin him after some years. It seems his new wife has died, and there are the children to be raised, and … and she has the sense to refuse, a bit shocked at how easily she warmed to his rewarmed domestic idyll. She throws him out. "You really are a mystery," he tells her, at some level hoping she will be chastised for such nonconformity. Her reply saves the story, and her: "But you don't have to solve it" (290). He doesn't; he can't. But she can't either, for the issue goes far beyond the local decision of whether to accept remarriage. It goes to that house prepared for her, for all these women, a house that they know even (especially?) in dreams is supposed to be familiar, a house that is not theirs, not ever theirs, the possessive in "her house" always already a trope in another's rhetoric.

We cannot read these stories simply, in other words, in search of some "statement" they are making. They are rich soundings of this house, whether an urban flat or a Rajput haveli, whether subject to traditional purdah or to Modernity's cash economy whips and bindings. What does fiction do when the nonfiction litany of horrors and the library of women's writings echo one another, image each other's turns and misrecognitions, sudden bursts and slow silences? Rigidly enclosed, tightly scripted, hushed by the directors and prompters, standing in rivers or monsoons or floods of tears or dreamwaters, issued the most worn of false utopias, melodramatic gestures, and borrowed languages, what are they to do? What does Streevani, the voice of woman, say when it is a matter of women on women…

But this more than simple reading is not only or strictly a treatment of symptoms rather than statements. More, because humor is textuality's anti-closure device, and because dreams are the Unconscious' anti-closure device, its means of keeping structures and anxieties in play with the flow of imaginings or creatings, and, yes, because roles–as Wife-Working Woman, or as Elizabeth Barrett–are history's anti-closure devices when taken up by a minoritarian energy. Minoritarian? A strategy that takes its abject position in a hierarchy, with its litany of horrors, as a starting point rather than a destiny, pursuing a however convoluted set of itineraries through the Majority's prized mechanisms and territories, but with a consciousness of difference, its différance, its non-ownership, its essentially nomadic status on the fringes of (at only the physical heart of) someone else's imperium.

And so the overtones, resonances, and improvised rhythms in some kinds of stories might be missed by an ear not attuned to this minoritarian energy. Illindala Saraswati Devi's Telegu story, "The Need for Sympathy," is about a woman, Bangaramma, celebrated for her ageless beauty, the object of much gazing, but exposed as a violator of the Object's age covenant when she must conduct her grandson's birthday celebration. A grandmother. On a train, men treat her with respect and deference until they discover her true age, then "they seemed to relax. Shedding their earlier inhibitions, they began to speak more freely, and even made a few crude jokes" (157). This shift comes just after their speculations about why a woman killed herself under a train: "'How old was she?' the first man asked, suggesting perhaps that some clue to the problem lay there. 'I can't really say. It's difficult to guess a woman's age. She was neither young, nor old'" (156). To be "neither young, nor old" is to be undercoded, to be uncounted, neither a sex object nor the object of hospice. Bangaramma’s son-in-law finds her only cold when he urges her to move in with them, to become the crone in the corner with her property and security managed for her.

What is she to do, once the men in the railway car and the crowd assembled at the party hear her called "Grandma!"? Devi has Bangaramma sit with the feverish child in the days that follow until he has healed, no doubt a rhetorical foiling of readers poised to dismiss her final act in the story. She leaves, and leaves a note, words that begin her flight into what may seem an ambiguous territory. "I have grown weary of the bonds of the family," she begins, as if she were a sannyasi renouncing the world. "For a long time now I have been thinking of serving as a nurse in a hospital." It is a place that regathers energies disciplined in her role as (grand)mother and directs them into an alternative space and role with its measure of independence. But she is not done; her postscript settles the economic subtext of her vanishing status in the family bonds: "I don't have to execute a separate will and testament. Your son will inherit all my property" (160).

Better yet, Illindala Devi is not done: had the story ended here, it might be like Chhaya Datar's Marathi story, "In Search of Myself," in which a woman who has gone to work with tribal women stands in the river, tearing up her husband's peremptory summons home, shedding her "social connections. At least for some time" (501). Her move is limited, it affects no structure, it simply delays its stroke. As a last line, it has the hollow echo of a call to which the harsh response is all too imminent, or it has the mere sentiment of an action. But Illandala Devi writes another paragraph to her story so that Bangaramma is not simply an escapee into a sort of modern forest hermitage. Her stroke is felt, most keenly, and not surprisingly, by her daughter: "She read the note. And wiping her tears, she said to her husband, 'Really, my mother has no courage at all'" (160).

Courage for what? To remain as "the daughter" remains? She is never named, she is not an individual, she is instead the place an individual might, or might not, occupy. Tears, but not action, flow; her flow quotes her mother's with all the bitterness of one not likely to turn her place into a minoritarian site. Bangaramma has joined the river Datar's protagonist stands in, full of thoughts of her "angry mother-in-law, a sulking husband, a sarcastic sister-in-law" (501). Like the son of "the daughter," they are reminders of what fixes her in place, quite different from those kinds of others these writers imagine, the widow who has aged gracefully rather than in obesity or decay, or as in Datar's story, the peasant woman Bhuribai who comes to the workshop despite the discipline of burns administered by her father-in-law. It is sometimes easier for the middle class writer to imagine a line of flight from some placement different from her own. Is that ease a symptom of blockages, or a plan, the composing of a Way, to be continued…


That Long Silence

At the end of writing her story as That Long Silence (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1989), Shashi Deshpande’s Jaya pauses in response to a servant’s question, "What is it, tai?":

The paragraph exemplifies what it names–writing that surprises linear expectations with a quilt. Manda asks what it is, Jaya wonders what she’s done. That shift from the essence of an object to a subject’s doings quilts with that from her own object-status (as object of Mohan’s fixation) to a subject ready "to speak, to listen, … to erase the silence between us" (192). A quilt maintains the individual peculiarity of shapes, sizes, and colors, their difference, but also stitches them, willfully, into a fabricated whole always, obviously, a composition, a cloth rhetoric that is a making rather than an essence represented. "Life," she concludes in the novel’s final line, "has always to be made possible"–it is not natural, instinctive, or easy (193). Had it an essence, or a natural line, it could be represented, followed. A question would lead to an answer, not to a question. And what lay between would be a thread, not a quilt.

In fact, early on, she thrashes about not quite able to disabuse herself of the expectations which the later quilting metaphor lets go: "Now the fabric was complete, and yet I had no idea what the overall design was. Each new accusation only bewildered me the more. I just couldn’t see what he was pointing at" (118). Pointing is a linear rhetoric like Manda’s question that points to the answer, the point of it all. She is here expecting the metaphor of fabric to be her life with Mohan, whereas she finally sees not fabric, but quilt as the metaphor of her narrative. A fabric would feel like a complete object, the material signifier of its signified pattern, the essence that names it, informs its meaning, accounts for its proper place (as upholstery, as sari, as kameez, as shirt, as binding). Jaya at this point seems still to think that her life has such a pattern. But she is achieving, in her quilt-like narrative, a different sense of life as infinite source material infinitely composed, always open and never finished until death, if then.

It is not the shapes, sizes, and colors that one chooses, but how they are put together. Deshpande’s novels show women experiencing the limited shapes their lives can take, the sizes of the patches of pleasure and pain, the colors that are to be found, or given. Thinking about her work, after thumbing the anthology’s pages with all its regional and historical sweep, one is sensitive to the Jamesian theme of narrators blundering in middle age to understand their lapses and blindnesses, one registers the enormity of the rapes (marital and otherwise) and sadism, one feels every impingement upon bodies and daily routines by the hierarchies of gender, or class, or social formation. Ultimately, I think Deshpande’s novels quote what is normally denigrated as women’s fiction, but she has cut these domestic dramas up, separating their scenes from the pretension to seamless wholes in media fictions. She makes quite clear how deeply these cuts reproduce themselves in the hearts and bodies of her protagonists, but she also lives her narrative life in awareness of the Buddhist epigraph to The Dark Holds No Terrors (New Delhi: Penguin, 1990; originally Vikas, 1980):

This refuge is hard to achieve because simplistic formulae crowd in both from the media and from simplifications even of this Buddhist strain, as when she experiments with the "feeling of weightlessness" that comes from recognizing maya, that "everything is unreal" (The Dark, 219). But quickly enough she realizes that "even if it is an illusion, it is the only reality we know," and she does have "to blunder her way through this to some kind of a life that would seem right to her" (220). Not a line on everything, maya, but a quilt of blundering, of mistakes and insights, something "to achieve" rather than to simply be.

In fact, trying simply to be is the worst strategy Deshpande’s characters attempt. This is not Garg’s Gina living in the moment, but rather getting thoughtlessly with the program. It leaves one written by someone else’s simplistic pattern, whether of the Sanskrit tale about the wife unwilling to disturb her husband’s sleep to save her child (The Dark, 207), the Ramayana’s Sita who dutifully follows Ram into exile (Long Silence, 9), the movie romances of love that girls seek until they find themselves in a marriage instead (Long Silence, 91), the TV movies that provide the relief of distraction or displacement to Urmi and her servant Rekha in The Binding Vine (31), the modern fairy tales of TV ads with their "illusion of happiness" for Jaya (Long Silence, 3-4), or the discourse and roles of "virtue and chastity and being a good wife" (Binding Vine, 166). They all become compositionally equivalent illusions, but our illusions, the pieces we have to work with.

The corollary of this quilt-narrative, in which three novels can be thought of as one larger one as easily as not, is that the self, too, is something other than the expected fabric. It is in The Dark Holds No Terrors, Deshpande’s favorite among her novels ("because it is the one that came closest to the vision I had of it when I conceived it"), that her protagonist says most bluntly this corollary:

Note how quickly she corrects the potentially totalizing "whole" to the "so much more" of an unfinished composition. Becoming "whole" here is a quilt-like whole rather than that of an identity. "If I have been a puppet," she goes on, "it is because I made myself one" (220).

Most typically, a Deshpande narrator encounters this multiplicity as a series of splits between the observing and experiencing self, or between the conventional assured wife riding scooter pillions side saddle behind her husband and the ironic or even cynical observer (The Dark, 192), or between herself as the bride Suhasini and the middle-aged Jaya resuming her own way (Long Silence, 119), or the "great divide" between one’s cruel egoism and loving compassion (Binding Vine, 201). But these divides are not really so much between selves, or even between authentic and inauthentic selves, any more than conflicted relationships (especially father-daughter, mother-daughter, husband-wife, brother-sister, sisters-in-law) are between a victim and a villain (though villains there be). That other is really a cultural construct making both figures co-victims: "Stumbling over the words, I suddenly realised–it was not Mohan but marriage that had made me circumspect" (187). This epiphany, when Jaya finally understand why she left a male friend dead on the floor, is paradigmatic for Deshpande’s fiction. She violated her canons of compassion, and her friendship with Kamat, not because she was afraid of Mohan’s response, but because she was in marriage, a not-self co-constituted with Mohan’s marital role. She acted like a puppet of marital identity rather than as her own quilted multiplicity.

There is, in The Binding Vine, a metaphor of a tapping on walls that comes through from the victims of these institutional or cultural impositions. Urmi reads her dead mother-in-law’s poems, thinks about them, hears them echoing as a chorus to her own obscured life. "And Mira …? The tapping on the wall is finally beginning to make sense. Something comes through when I think of Venu’s poems [the male poet who told Mira to make babies instead] everywhere and Mira’s voice silenced" (128). This is the Mira who refused, if only in her poems, the married name (Nirmala) by which even Urmi knew her in life. The name Mira recalls both the ocean (a limitless composition itself) and a saint poetess devoted to Krishna; Nirmala, on the other hand, means spotless, sinless, a wiping clean of the messy mix of reality. When Jaya in That Long Silence realizes that her "enemy" is the cultural institution of marriage rather than the other individual locked into it with her, she is hearing something like the tapping on the wall coming through from Mira’s poems in the other novel, and as a result Jaya works her way back through life as if at the "peepshow" of her own existence: "And now I found myself looking at the picture of a girl, a child, wearing a dress with pockets for the first time, thrusting her hands in them, feeling heady with the excitement of finding unexpected resources within herself. That child was me. With this discovery came another thought. I will begin with her, with this child" (Long Silence, 187).

It’s an interesting passage, because it suggests not a return to nature so much as a return to the plasticity of the composition. Jaya thinks her way through the crucial passage beyond the binaries that set co-victims against each other; she follows, in other words, a fundamental logical move we recall from Ashis Nandy’s insight that "the popular modern antonyms are not always the true opposites" (The Intimate Enemy, 99), that conditions of "oppression" are a mechanism fracturing an "inclusive whole" into warring exclusive parts, constituting them as roles in the drama of hierarchical divides. Jaya recovers the sense of "unexpected resources" that accrue by beginning not with the given of these binary mechanisms tied into the social machinery, but with the relatively smooth clear space of "that child," a "me" that provides a quite different starting point.

Not that Deshpande minimizes those mechanisms, whisking them away in a romance of self-construction that dismisses them as simply unreal, maya. Urmi must correlate both the conjunction and the distinction between the rape Mira undergoes in her marriage and that suffered by her patient, Kalpana, an underclass victim of her brother-in-law. Class matters, for example, dissolving middle-class protections in poverty, crowdedness, frustration, ambitions, raw anger. Wealthy expatriates condescend to their middle-class relations, abused wives serve their middle-class masters with no whisper of complaint against their husbands and no recourse or relief available even if desired, poor children stare disbelieving at Rahul’s ice cream cones, untrained roadworkers are blinded by stonechips, generous would-be friends are cut off because of their "low" relations. There is seemingly no end to the ways in which economic privilege can exacerbate or cushion (but not remove) roles and consequences. Not Mohan, but marriage, in this case to the stratifications and subjectivities arrayed by cultural and historical machinery.

Having taken over the machinery of women’s fiction, the stylized world of domestic dramas, Deshpande for the most part opens out her social metaphors from the specific forms that cut and shape middle class women’s life. In The Dark Holds No Terrors, Sarita’s husband bruises and batters her by night, but comes out the next morning as "his usual self. Absolutely his usual self. There was no change in him, no difference" (202), he seems not to know how he is at night: what an image of repressed violence surfacing and redirecting itself against the unempowered…. She, for her part, struggles in the novel unsure whether, as a child, she pushed her brother into the pool where he drowns, or whether she tried to help him. As it turns out, it seems he fell in, that she did attempt to rescue him, that she never recovered her speech until after her mother said, at the time, "Why didn’t you die? Why are you alive, when he’s dead?" (191)–certainly she was not to regain a voice after that remark, not for a long time. But her inability to remember matches that of her sadistic husband: guilt, violence, passions are obscured by the "marriage" between relationships and the social unconscious of power.

The incidents themselves scarcely count in the narratives–these are not TV docudramas, venues for the voyeurism of vicariously acting out that social unconscious. One sees instead only responses, effects, and the affects of relations once they are overcoded within the social. Mother and daughter do not speak together in this novel; father and daughter speak only after the mother and a marriage are dead, lost wisps of care rising awkwardly, vestigial elements of unrealized connection. Confusion, misunderstanding, hallucinatory (and erroneous) reconstructions, amnesia: it is never that other one to whom one is bound, but rather the Social itself, keeping one utterly alone even in a relationship. Conventionalized relations, that is, almost preclude unmediated connection: one is always haunted by the terror of ultimate lonesomeness. Her mother died hearing again the chapter about Duryodhana in the Mahabharata, waiting to die, alone; Sarita turns her memory to her dead brother Dhruva to say that "now, after so many years, I know, Dhruva, why you came to me to escape from the dark. And how you felt when I told you to go away" (205).

The desiccated marriages of The Binding Vine and That Long Silence are another even more obvious trope of what happens to relations between others within the social space, the crucial vehicle of the metaphor being that of silence. Many passages key off the silence between Jaya and Mohan, their names parodying victory and infatuation. The courtship itself was silent: as an adolescent Mohan was stunned one day to see three rich women, and he expediently maps the youngest upon a stranger he sees, decides to marry, and manages to secure by manipulating through a friend the elaborate process of match-making carried out by Indian parents. It was never Jaya, in other words, but some rich girl he never really met, whom he encountered as an apparition of beauty and power, like Gatsby’s Daisy. It was never the rich girl either, of course, but an entirely different position signified by a golden sari and a pure English. Between the two there was most of all possession, possessions: Deshpande is painstaking about the economic and social grounds to Mohan’s fetishizing of Jaya, his infatuation with a cultural cluster of associated values, his assumption of the master’s role in this complicated machinery.

Such mastery leaves them less and less to talk about over the years, particularly since the distance imposed between them is one of incommensurability, the noncongruence of their ways of seeing, thinking, talking. "Women in those days were tough," Mohan comments, thinking back upon his mother, but she can think his comment at best "strange": "He saw strength in the woman sitting silently in front of the fire, but I saw despair. I saw a despair so great that it would not voice itself. I saw a struggle so bitter that silence was the only weapon. Silence and surrender" (Long Silence, 36). She knows her reading is not entirely fair, that there is a "conspiracy of women" through which she knows even more than he of this story, thanks to his sister Vimala. Just as The Binding Vine’s Urmi disinterred the dead poet Mira as her means of self-understanding, so Jaya here takes Mohan’s own mother away from his narrative to place in her own. From the minoritarian whisperings through which she gleaned stories from Vimala or "read" Mohan’s father once he was an old man (and hence increasingly marginalized), Jaya gains a knowledge that isn’t married to the social but persists as something like its unconscious, a silence that nonetheless is a rebus quilt of incongruous shapes, sizes, colors.

Like her mother-in-law’s silence by the fire, Jaya’s can be a tool–"I knew his mood was best met with silence" (78). When she is not silent, but gets "into a temper" (83), he is "utterly crushed by the things I had said" (82), and he’d looked at her "as if my emotions had made me ugly, as if I’d got bloated with them" (82, 3). It is her body that is changed (bloated) for him, for "anger made a woman ‘unwomanly’" in his eyes, unmapped it as object of gaze and gave it the boundarylessness of sound. Later, in the middle of his complaint about her lack of supportiveness in his crisis, she is silent but then laughs, suddenly overlaying Mohan with her son Rahul losing hold of the nipple as an infant. The comedy of the infant in the patriarchy machine is too much for her, but hearing it is also too much for Mohan, who leaves. More is at stake here than simply the male privilege of speech: the langue does not include her plane of perception, and when somehow "she" does erupt, the social being is unmasked as an infantilizing constriction of potentiality, hers and his.

And so silence becomes a void where relating does not occur. As for sex, theirs is "a silent, wordless love-making" (85) as mechanized as their courtship. Even in their early days when her body responded to him, she "had never confessed my frenetic emotions to him" (97) because the ensuing relation was too complicated to extricate from the easy roles already furnished by the script. In her ultimate realization that she "was alone," she holds a knowledge that has no voice: "The contact, the coming together, had been not only momentary, but wholly illusory as well. We had never come together, only our bodies had done that. I had begun to cry then, despairingly, silently, scared that I would wake Mohan up, trying desperately to calm myself" (98). Calming means silencing, means retooling oneself, and it is less a matter of whether to comply with a role–which would be a conventional feminist message–than of a reluctance to engage with the sheer openness of a relation that might cut loose from that script. Always, "it was so much simpler to say nothing. So much less complicated" (99).

Her silence with herself, to herself, is just as significant. When she looks back through her diaries, she is struck by the "trivialities," the "dwindling" of their writer, the merely "skeletal outlines" contained there:

Note the slippage between object and subject, the silencing of core and cries and the deepest question of all, this limiting of her territory to the mileposts of family meals. This self-limiting territorializing of herself is what her friend Kamat tries to undo when he looks at her failed stories:

Their exchange goes back and forth, he condemns "this ‘woman are the victims’ theory," arguing that "it’ll drag you down into a soft, squishy bog of self-pity. Take yourself seriously, woman. Don’t skulk behind a false name. And work… This scribbling now and then…" (148).

Alas, that it should take a man to say these things, but he wants her to venture seriously rather than occasionally "scribbling" from a bog. The false name he means is her penname as a columnist, but it rhymes with her married name of Suhasini, with her naming by society as woman, with her self-narrative as victim: they’re all married to the social machine Kamat would as soon have her dismantle. The long silence is that of us all, as Jaya realizes when she considers the Sanskrit in her Appa’s diary after his death, words Krishna speaks to Arjuna after an entire Bhagvad-gita of instructions: "I have given you knowledge. Now you make the choice. The choice is yours. Do as you desire" (192). It is the gods of history who have chosen the shapes and sizes and colors from which Arjuna must choose, but it is "humanness" to have to make such a choice, to have to stitch in a pattern chosen from the combinatory possibilities, a langue of composition that is quilting, writing, being.

I think probably Deshpande’s most incisive thinking follows this trajectory of the long silence we all live until we discover some radical demystification of our social marriage. Ultimate aloneness, failing social forms, the symptomatically violent behavior of our co-victims, the Buddhist razor set to religious dogma, the unexpected words or tears of another’s private struggle, the moment of mortification when we finally see the impact of our blindnesses upon others–any of these may trigger the way for life "to be made possible" (193), to be made. When making replaces simply following another’s lead, silence is erased along with the greater void it signifies. "I have looked at his face for clues," Jaya realizes looking back, "and then given him the answer I know he wants" (192). The his is Mohan’s, but only within the domestic drama Deshpande appropriates for her much larger enquiry: it is any other’s who serves as the face of the social symbolic and the material forms that sustain it. To understand this is to begin the recovery from that amnesia, that confusion of memory, that tangle of mutual misconstructions and pathological silence between members of a relation. And perhaps part of such a beginning is precisely Jaya realizing that she can be that performing puppet no longer, and her awkward breaking of the silences between herself and Mohan: "but why am I making myself the heroine of this story? Why do I presume that the understanding is mine alone? Isn’t it possible that Mohan too means something more by ‘all well’ than going back to where we were?" (193). Possible indeed especially if they both give up threading themselves into the social fabric and begin the more difficult art of quilting.

The Other Garden

Among the boldest of India's new heroines is Anasuya, in Priya Sarukkai-Chabria's The Other Garden (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 1995). Anasuya has energy, sexuality, talent, sophistication, and a determination not to be herded into a marriage that will make her "normal." She has a horror of the conventional; she also wants some form of its economic security and, finally, some form of motherhood. Her appetites and her independence engage her with all the contradictions of Bombay society sensationalized or romanticized in other fiction on the shelf. In fact, she is keenly aware that negotiating her way through the cultural contradictions besetting her path requires that she not live either in a romance or a filmi. It's not a game with rules you can win by–gaming and winning are false promises of the same store of cultural formulae she wants to evade. To do so she must know these contradictions and number the sharp teeth in the doublebinds that snap at her as she blows through scene after scene of onlookers disoriented by her inevitable combination of bravado and self-absorption.

Her narrator has a parallel problem: how to orchestrate this narrative without forcing its variousness into any of the simplifying conventions at her fingertips. She cycles through narrators–her mother, her friend, her dead brother, herself–and narrative mechanics, including tales and fables with their oblique commentary, fact-filled prayers, scripts, dramatized scenes, retrospective reports, a classical narrator's summing up. She even, like Anasuya, has something like a breakdown almost halfway through in which she toys with stylized narrative frames to contain the wild energies of the story (the romance, the "Kodachrome Family saga," the Bollywood goonda film, tragic melodrama). "Reader, what shall I do?" she asks in "despair" (128):

Narrative, life, "stuck" on the road of the telling, her break is the narrative's temporary degeneration into these burlesques of the easier job had by those compliant with convention, the narratological equivalents of the safe but dull housewives who terrify Anasuya with their dead predictability. Both Anasuya and the narrator get moving again through these pages when it can be said that "the age of instant miracles has long gone past" (130):

The explicit labels of that poison are "turmoil," "treachery," and "hate," but we most understand these words not only in the headline sense of ethnic insurgency and street crime, but as postmodernity's distinctive pairing of psychological and cultural violences–namely, simultaneously normalizing life in the commodity lane and erasing the depth of memory and values from more traditional life patterns and social forms. The "gentler variety of miracle" is a longer process with less visible results, and is itself not always any more prepossessing in appearance than the "sea slug" of this passage.

There is a moment early in the novel when a narrator we've not yet (Sath) met passes on this report about Anasuya late in her life–long after the novel's events, in fact: "He said she's strange, she's white and old, she talks to clouds and trees" (31). The narrator has to agree that "she had aged rapidly, four years to our every one, and slipped away into a distant old age." But precisely because she is "strange" with a superannuation not domesticated within the narrative compound of the novel's joint family structure, she has "slipped away" from all the points at which she might have fit within one conventional frame or another. She looks strange to any conventional observer. Her most ordinary pursuits–raising a son and later an adopted daughter–are barely glimpsed in a novel less interested in placing her than sounding the waves of her displacement. From her wake we may learn something about cleaning up the historical poisons lapping our own lives.

The part of Sath’s comments worth pursuing further is the phrase describing what her life looks like as she negotiates her hard-earned space between the grid of social roles and forms and the biting edge of normalization menacing her in the hostility, sarcasm, and dismissal of the comment. In fact I may want to obsess a bit over her talking to "clouds and trees," perhaps because clouds and trees are so resonant in a novel in which her brother and surrogate son is Siddhartha and her "natural" son is Gautama.... Clouds are a classic Buddhist metaphor of illusion, while trees modulate from ancient fertility cults through the Vedic tradition's cosmic tree to Buddha's Bodhi tree of enlightenment. Now there is no necessity to fantasize that Anasuya has become a sage fluent in the Buddhist idiom of illusion and enlightenment, though she does let go of ego and society while maintaining her compassion quite thoroughly. But Sath, the source of the comment, is as perceptive as he is ironic, and to his very worldly eyes–he is a schmooz artist for corporate India–Anasuya has "slipped away" from his world's decorums of good sense and appropriateness. Her "old and white" conversations need mean no more than that she has struck her version of a peace with nature and her own aging body. Given the contrast with her pathetic mother and aunt (in "Mother says her prayers"), we need to have considerable respect for Anasuya's ability to engineer sensuality, motherhood, and old age on her own terms with virtually no support from her culture.

The narrator leaves this an understated (almost unstated) achievement, but in a short chapter ("Thus spake Anasuya"), she eavesdrops with her omniscience on a crucial stage in Anasuya's coming toward these terms. "This is my last chance, she says to herself. Must decide right" (212); ostensibly she's trying to decide whether to marry Vikram, a difficult decision since she's always resisted the cliche of marriage and she feels that "I'm too old to experiment. I'm too old to take failure." She toys with the solace of metaphors' mini-narratives, but she also "tests" the words and thoughts that file in to label her. "What I feel is not loneliness, which connects people. This is something else" (215). She begins to shred such sentimentalizing, she disrobes the classic journey metaphor of life ("except I'm not going anywhere"), and rejects any more tranquilizer sex like her night with Sath: "But no one comes aboard my boat either, she says to herself. That's illusion." Zarathustra lives, perhaps, in her thorough critique of all these social forms in which most of her contemporaries are hopelessly invested.

Amidst the Buddhist resonances of the novel, "illusion" is a powerfully demystifying word to throw at the nuclear couple of her society's structure. She recurs to "aloneness" trying to pick the right emotion to ascribe to it, then hits a plateau only partly undermined with the narrator's irony:

"Awareness" is another of those charged terms from the Buddhist context, but if this is what being alone has come to be for her then it is a victory unique in the novel. These other characters are dizzy with the turmoil and uncertainty of the times. Anasuya is steadying herself, protesting that "it is not fair to have to will change on oneself" rather than just being "swept along. Or sink" (217), but nonetheless aware of herself coming to this understanding of her being, and changing accordingly. Perhaps the irony here is a way of acknowledging that, as Buddha taught, even the dharma is means rather than an end to which one should cling.

This brief, potent chapter ends with her choosing the way of the householder over any kind of further renunciation. "I think I want a family, she says to herself, like in books. I want a happy ending" (217). It would be easy to say she has caved in to normality, too easy, and not just because Vikram dies before they can marry but after she's pregnant. She gets what she wants without either clinging to it or identifying with it. Her boy, Gautama, goes to boarding school rather than constituting a primal incestuous dyad with her, and she adopts a daughter to further weave a family structure in which the "aloneness" of awareness might take precedence over the psychological crossfire of identification, projection, transference, and the like. What ripens beyond the "happy ending" mechanics of this by no means conventionally happy narrative is, well, something different. A ripening, perhaps, of what fills the final lines of the chapter till they overflow in the unspeakable punctuation of ellipses: "Who am I pleading with, she says, hello, wait and see, just what am I pleading for, who am I pleading with ..." (217). I say "ripening" because as these ellipses trail off she is not quite as ready as she is later to slip away from the socially constructed "I" with whom she is pleading, seeking permission to connect with Vikram despite the double risks involved. That is, she wouldn't want marriage to be shredded by society disapproving of forty-somethings divorcing and producing an instant family in the thirteenth hour of her biological clock. Nor would she want to see their relation lose her hard-earned awareness of the pathology of traditional Indian marriages.

She has used that "I," sometimes with consummate cruelty (as when she demolishes Sath's avatar as "the romantic classic-quoting fantasizer," 232). She pays her way as a photographer for flight magazines and other commercial clients who want neatly packaged stereotypes for their "happy ending" stories. But the older she gets, the more she also uses that "I" and all its complicities with increasing "awareness" of making her middle way between clouds of cultural illusion and her various trees of "natural" limits and longings. Ultimately, it will fade as an adequate way of thinking about herself. With viperish wit Sath infers in her photo exhibition "a certain tinge of envy emerg[ing] through the framing of this old lady secure within her mythology and her silver but still beautifully long hair" (240). But this is her mother, not just an older type of the innocent traditional long-haired girl–and we who have heard her prayers as Sath has not know that she is anything but secure. The mother’s only security comes in the apartment and allowance Anasuya provides her from her own place upstairs in the same building, as dutiful as any traditional daughter. But she is neither imprisoned by her role nor bitter about it: she passes through it without being fixed in it.

Again, Sath sees Anasuya in the hospital after giving birth (prematurely upon news of Vikram's fatal coronary), her black hair "open, streaming like grief out of her brains" (242). If he's accurate, Anasuya's awareness and her capacity for relations should have all spilled out. But Sath, with his romantic fixation on hair, may also be reacting to the difference in Anasuya's energy after Vikram's loss. He hears she's hanging out with new friends, "drinking buddies," four women in the arts (film, journalism, pottery, Sanskrit translation). "I have no wish to entangle with this girlie–rather feminist group" (242), he concludes in his splendid isolation from the changes, both willed and imposed, Anasuya has negotiated. Her sensuality hasn’t spilled so much as transformed, but he can only denigrate her in comparison to an early nineteenth-century family he researched in which Anasuya's counterpart married, raised her children, and played the East India Company game of "matrimonial catches and posts" (243) for her children. Anasuya’s energy streams without running out: it is not a hoard of coins to be invested wisely in the social banking system, but a pure flow beyond any form Sath could recognize.

In other words, Anasuya negotiates her way right through the melodrama of fallen woman, sex siren, and outcast, and then on beyond where these narrators cannot follow, giving us glimpses rather than continuities. The principal narrator orchestrating all these words must parallel Anasuya’s passage in her narratology, restraining herself at all costs from invoking any formula for containing Anasuya. The continuities that come with these conventional narrative formulae thus give way structurally to a series of snapshots noting key moments on her trajectory. For example, we've a glimpse of Anasuya fighting for her mother during the latter's hospitalization, and then of her "recovering" (261) afterwards with a "spring in her heart" brought on by her mother's getting well, an exhibition of her photos, her son's drawings and smile (264). "She wants to focus her energies," we read, "become more stubbornly herself" rather than be sucked into Sath's "rules of the game" (244). With Anasuya "fleeing from one speck of happiness to another, from one moment of joy to the next" (265-6), it doesn't matter to the narrator that these are the small daily joys of a peaceful visit with her often troubling father and stepmother, her son, her mother's samosas. These modest moments are lived on Anasuya’s own terms and hence they continuously produce a momentum rather than drain her life away with a schedule of obligations. The essential thing is that Anasuya has learned to exceed any singular role imposed upon her while disinvesting in the usual machinery of validation so well-oiled by the likes of Sath. "I can go forward and synopsise the rest of her story" (266) the narrator says. As her own difficult task comes closer and closer to approximating the form and structure of Anasuya’s life, the narrator feels the lightening of her burden. She can let go of the narrative "I" of a sort of imperialist narratology, the mastery of self and world, and instead be free to assemble a collage analogous to Anasuya’s existential self-difference. Her own language for the narrative two-step is that she can "close what makes me be and once again be free..." (277).

The pace of juxtaposition thus quickens–there are in the last fifty pages a half dozen of the "extraneous" fables and vignettes interpolated in the novel, and the narrator finishes with such an epic catalog of what happened to whom sentences that no one could feel at ease with his or her perpetual desire for an ending (happy or otherwise) to a novel's characters. The fables are open (it is for us to decide who the sharks and suckerfish are, why the moss and chestnut trees spring up where the bear laughed, how the fetally positioned raindragon relates to Anasuya & Co., and so forth). It is also for us to decide how to connect to the story of how her friend Fareeda Khan landed on the Kashmiri militants' death list, no doubt for violating the more Talibanish of the Kashmiri sensibilities. The Narrator even leaves it to us to figure out who she is (though I'll settle for the potter, I nominate "Karola someone," the German translater of Sanskrit, as the one who has to shout into the phone when Fareeda checks in long distance from Delhi–242, 274).

The mirror of narrative becomes the mirage of closure, unitary vision, credible linearity. For all her suave sophistication, the narrator agonizes across the arc of distance in the lives of her friends; coming "soon" to Delhi, her response to Fareeda's death threats and Anasuya's life struggles is intense: "My hands are trembling, darkness fluttering between fingers. Again don't ask me why" (274). The intensities experienced by these more vulnerable friends overtax the equanimity she maintains from the relative safety of Europe. But these are not so negative a set of endings as some reviewers are likely to lament, puzzled by the mysteries and the lack of simple blueprints for positive thinking and living. Anasuya must learn, once she veers off the line of normalized responses, how to form life even though it is "darkness fluttering between fingers," at least until one gives it the shape and light of one’s own awareness of what our "aloneness" might ultimately mean. At the same time, the narrator in postmodernity’s times of turmoil must not forget that her hands can, with the slap of an ending or the spin of a conventional shape, spoil the pure openness of life, that Gertrude Stein present participle that "makes me be" an effectively postmodern narrator. Her refusal to name herself and involve herself within this story keeps the always potent power of the authorial presence from becoming the fix to this flux, just as the shifting point of view unsettles the regime of any focal character and the interpolated fables and other genres, the nonchronological order in which it emerges, all serve to dislocate even the trajectory of Anasuya's life as the single monad of this narrative physics.

Sarukkai-Chabria's luminous beautiful prose suffuses this novel whose title makes sense only when Anasuya finally understands the nature of her stillborn twin's "other garden." Though she has pursued it in her imagination since childhood, Anasuya comes to accept that "I'll never find it because it doesn't exist, never did. I never entered it. I misunderstood. But now I'm clear. The garden is like the inside of a bubble, nothing and no different. It's worse than a cloud of desire; it lures by its absence" (288). Dropping the core myth of her childhood, Ahalya's garden, she also drops how its distorted reflection collected all that was missing in her childhood and promised that it did exist, just elsewhere, "beyond the next bend of mountains, and the next." And so she concludes: "Find Time and it will disappear, I'll then be able to unlock the secret of myself. I'll see the random drifting patterns of self interlock without time's mirrors" (288). The "perhaps" and the "maybe" with which the narrator hypothesizes this line of thought for Anasuya don't vitiate its impact. Ahalya's bubble of absent plenitude disappears as Anasuya finds time, her history, of "random drifting patterns" of self weaving, interlocking, pulsions and compulsions, chance events and cultural forms. "Time's mirrors" confuse as we see the past in light of present needs or future anxieties or social forms, or misrecognize the present as it takes place because of such bubbles from the past as Ahalya's other garden, or any of the other pieces and bits and forms that have floated by Anasuya's sharp eyes.

Sath's last word, repeating his earlier report, is that Anasuya's "weird, she talks to trees and tribals, she's old and gone to seed, she sees faces in clouds" (296). She is weird, she has understood "self" as seed more than entity, her society as faces in clouds more than as game rules worth playing. Together with trees and tribals, these constitute her antidote to the "poison lapping at the edges of our lives," the means by which she sustains an open narrative of self in the face of Postmodernity's radical decoding. In one of the "once upon a time" interpolations, at the end of a sketch of a youth who tells stories to his beloved which "settle into her like feathers of white calm," we read what she has gained from the stories that "go through everything she does, but emerge joyful, irreverent, brave. These stories he tells her to soothe her many pains ...":

We are not entities, like whales, beached upon history, but we are instead drops within its thunderhead, and with luck and a bit of open narratology, we also "emerge joyful, irreverent, brave," if also "weird." It is almost as if this novel overheard Deshpande’s Jaya dreaming the house of culture dissolving like rain, and recognized the kind of self we know as part of the furnishings, dissolving in rain. Anasuya’s achievement is to have found how to live energetically with all this fragility and interconnection.

My sequence of narratives covered in this chapter is itself a narrative, of course, one that ends with a garden of otherness following a quilted narrative. The protagonists most credible in my story are those who release narrative itself from its historical bondage to an imperial kind of self aligning itself with a series of patriarchal analogues among self, family, nation, and class. Each of these analogies implies a figure in the fabric, an answer to The Question, a linear explanation from First Cause to Final Effect. Each implies a notion of order that becomes, finally, the problem, and the minoritarian strategy emerging in the final episodes of my chapter’s narrative include first knowing the cultural logic of the social machine, then delinking one’s "I" from both the logic and the machine’s various avatars in society, and, finally, accepting the open and multiple character of a strategic narratology. That narratology is reflexive, critical, of every point in society where the microfascism of formal order begins to ossify. Critical as well of every microfascism within, including the illusion of the kind of "I" we make of ourselves. Deshpande’s Jaya and Sarukkai-Chabria’s Anasuya do not "make" themselves by completing a process or becoming an identity. Their breakthroughs come by realizing that they negotiate continuously with the forms, roles, and resources that more typically induce conformity and spiritual death. For these new kinds of women, continuous becoming is a never ending story, their own faces as cloudlike as society’s passing illusions. Lose too much of the gritty historical footing with which we began and you play your instrument badly; accept its complicated binaries and its labyrinthine recycling of anger and frustration, and one plays only the melodramas of domestic or communal violence. Empowering oneself, without subjecting one’s psyche to the seductive forms of Power, is the most difficult of middle ways. It requires, utterly, the recognition that becomes the focus of my next chapter, Mirror to Mirage.